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Homily - Fifth Sunday of Lent - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 21 March 2021

One week out from Holy Week, the scripture readings are very clearly focusing our attention on the suffering and death of Jesus – and on the meaning of those terrible events in Jerusalem. Jesus prepared his apostles, and he is bracing his modern disciples to face that reality. What lessons do I hear today?

Firstly, if there were not a disastrous mess in the human heart, there would not be a need for such drastic divine action by Jesus. Our culture asks us to obey our thirsts and to canonise our personal preferences – and then it condemns people for what happens when they do so. We see the effects of taking seriously the flimsy moral code based on 'Let's feel good'. The face of our planet in every generation has been scarred by obscene greed, violence and disdain for the vulnerable, before and after birth. It is delusional to portray any current ideology as immeasurably more virtuous than the evils of the past from which they wish to rescue us. 

Jeremiah uses a powerful image. He speaks of God's plan to write his law in the human heart. Conversion is not merely a matter of changing behaviour – abandoning damaging practices and taking on more virtues. The process of being reborn means allowing our hurting or hard hearts to be remade. Jesus takes the pain of the world on himself and breaks the human cycle that wants to exact blood-spilling vengeance on someone else for what I have suffered. Jesus offers to take your pain that fuels anger and resentment in your heart – and free your heart to be remade. Holy Week will not just be a time to follow the journey of Jesus from a safe distance. It will be a time to load on him the bile that burns inside me. That will not be easy as we all love to hold on to resentment. It justifies anger. So many people seem to have found their identity in being angry about what has happened to them or to others. Having our hearts healed will take courage on our part. But, if you want to know the difference that this can make, just ask an addict who has found the joy of freedom.

Secondly, our Gospel passage opens with that apparently irrelevant passage about Greeks wanting to see Jesus. What is the point of that? St John's Gospel is laced with this sort of strange questions and requests to which Jesus gives intriguing answers. In this case, Jesus does not respond by giving the Greek visitors a warm welcome to Jerusalem and basic lesson on following him. He goes straight to the heart of what he is about. If these Greeks want to see Jesus, what they will see in the horrors of Good Friday is his moment of glorification. They will be asked to see dying as the beginning of a life-giving harvest. He is pointing out that disciples do not come to him saying "I want" but rather asking "what do you want from me?". Yes, for Jesus and for all his followers, this is a path of dying to ourselves that will trouble the soul of many. Jesus asks his followers to face this death with him – and then he will face our Cross with us. The reality and result of evil can be defeated only by Jesus and with him. But there is no easy way to do it. Having the courage to face evil in our heart and on our streets will come at an enormous cost. 'Let's feel good' and 'obey your thirst' will get us nowhere and keep us childish. Jesus invites us to grow up and stand beside him in fighting the evil that afflicts the world. That is the call to sainthood. Only if we see Jesus for what he is and what he is doing will we be able to join him in to face evil. "Whatever you want is fine" was never part of Jesus' message.

Thirdly, Jesus is not merely calling us to have our individual hearts remade. He always challenges those who claim be his followers today to let the Church be remade. The call to repentance is directed first at the Church. Only when we begin with having our own hearts remade can we invite others to take our preaching seriously. It is attractive for some Christians to take the moral high ground and condemn others for problems in the Church and the world. But Psalm 50 tells us that only when we have a pure heart created within us will we be able to teach transgressors God's ways and help them return to the Lord. Any synodal way of being the Irish Church is not merely a question of partisan Church politics and a theological debating society where the loud and articulate win the vote – but end up going nowhere. Church is all about making space for the victory, not of my opinions, but of the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis wrote recently that any synodal way of being church has to be 'for everyone an experience of conversion'[1]. We all need to have a remade pure heart within us, not just some of us. Otherwise, we place too much trust on our own wisdom and eloquence and little on the crazy wisdom of Holy Week. If we start any synodal approach with a heart that wants to promote my agenda, then we are going nowhere. Jesus 'learned to obey through suffering'. The church will not be made missionary in our day without the suffering that comes from discerning and obeying the Holy Spirit. As Jesus refers to in the Gospel. some might be tempted to say "Father, save me from this hour." However, with him, we can take seriously that the prince of this world has been overthrown. The Cross is a time of unimaginable grace. If we try to short circuit that journey, we don't really want to see Jesus. If we seek only to win our battles, we will get in the way of his victory.

If we take them seriously, the next two weeks up until Easter Sunday will be difficult. I am delighted that we will be able to celebrate Holy Week with God's People around the Cross and the altar. We believe that healing for our world comes from immersing ourselves in the mystery of Calvary and Resurrection. I know that every day we celebrate the mystery of Calvary's sacrifice – but Holy Week is a unique time to re-present the drama that happened in Jerusalem 2,000 year ago. God's plan says that we can all be glorified through participation in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Only a church that submits humbly to that dying to itself and being remade can be Christ's vehicle for drawing everyone to himself. At the beginning of the next two weeks, Jesus asks all of us whether we are prepared to fall to the ground and die so that a rich harvest can be made visible in our day, too. It will be a tough journey – but only in this way can God be glorified and the world healed.

+ Donal McKeown

[1] Let us Dream. 2020, Simon and Schuster, p 84

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