Click the green arrow below to hear this homily as it was delivered at the Saturday 5 p.m. vigil Mass.
The gospel today places us at a turning point in the scriptures – as Jesus confronts the looming reality of his own death.
If you have ever been close to someone facing that reality, it can be harrowing — and heartbreaking. I experienced that with both my parents. Different people face death in different ways, sometimes with anger, sometimes with denial or despair. One of the most remarkable — and to me, most inspiring — was the story of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
He was cardinal archbishop of Chicago in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1995, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The following year, Cardinal Bernardin set out to tell his story – what he called “the final miles of my life’s journey” – in a book called “The Gift of Peace.” He completed the book in November of 1996, describing how he was finishing the manuscript in the fall while knowing that he would not live to see the spring. Indeed, he died just 13 days after the book was done.
“The Gift of Peace” is a beautiful meditation about life — but also about the end of life. It is about facing that end with faith and with grace. Cardinal Bernardin considered his final illness a kind of gift from God — the “gift of peace” that gave the book its title. It’s a gift that also endowed his last days with clarity and, he wrote, a sense of freedom.
“When we are at peace,” the cardinal wrote, “we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times. We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential. We empty ourselves so that God may more fully work within us. We become instruments in the hands of the Lord.” Fittingly, he titled the last chapter of his book, “The Cross Comes Into Clear View.”
Well, I think those six words could also serve as a title for this Sunday’s gospel.
In this reading from John, Jesus confronts the same painful truth that Cardinal Bernardin confronted — and that all of us face: the certainty of death. Our time is finite. In the gospel, Christ’s earthly life is ending. His hour is at hand. He looks toward his future, the coming days, and sees before him Calvary. The cross has “come into clear view.”
For Jesus, this is a moment of anticipation – and anxiety. In a profound and deeply personal way, the gospel shows us the human dimension of our savior. The man who walked on water and gave sight to the blind shows an unexpected vulnerability. “I am troubled now,” he says. I imagine he’s not only troubled about what he would experience – the pain, the humiliation, and struggle he would endure – but also, I think, troubled for his followers. His friends, his family. He’s troubled for all those who will find themselves – after he’s gone — suddenly alone.
Later in John’s gospel, Jesus would reassure them, “I will not leave you orphans.” Here, too, he offers reassurance. “Where I am, there also will my servant be,” he says. “The Father will honor whoever serves me.”
Again and again, he tells us: this will be hard, but take comfort. You are not alone.
And then beautifully, in the middle of confronting the closeness of his own death, Jesus sees life. A grain of wheat, he says, has to die before it can bear fruit.
If you want to know what sort of fruit it bears, just look around you this morning. We are part of it. The church throughout the world is a part of it. From that grain of wheat, there has been an astounding harvest.
And it is because of the cross on Calvary. “For this purpose,” he explains, “have I come.”
Put bluntly, Jesus understood that he was born so that he could die.
And he died so that you and I could live.
“For this purpose have I come.”
Someone once said that each of us has only one goal in life: to get to heaven, and to bring as many souls with us as possible. Of course, along the way, things get a lot more complicated. Life gets more complicated. But these last few weeks have served to remind us of what matters, stripping away what isn’t needed. Lent helps us to simplify what has become complex – to burn away what is unnecessary, so that we are left with only what is essential and important.
And now, in these last days of Lent, as the cross comes into view, as the climb to Calvary becomes clear — as the wood and the nails and the thorns become real — take one last look at the road we have traveled the last five weeks. Maybe there have been detours and backtracks.
But it’s worth asking ourselves: what have we left undone? Is there unfinished business – hurts that we have left unattended, or amends that we need to make?
Have we opened our hearts to those in need? Have we worked to see in those we meet the face of Christ?
Have we reconciled ourselves with one another and with God?
Have we been – as Cardinal Bernardin put it — instruments in the hand of the Lord?