A reflection on the Sunday readings for March 21, 2021 — the Fifth Sunday in Lent
This is the story of Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, a Burmese nun.
As you are likely aware, recently the military assumed power in Burma (Myanmar) in a coup that overthrew the democratically elected government. Many young people have since taken to the streets in peaceful protest of the military takeover. Unfortunately, the military has resorted to violence and indiscriminately shooting at the protestors. As a result, many young people are now dead.
On March 8, a group of young protestors were escaping a brutal, violent attack unleashed by the military police. They protestors took refuge at a clinic run by the nuns where Sr. Ann Rose Nu Tawng was a member of the community. The police arrived right away to round up the protestors. Kneeling before the heavily armed military police, Sister Ann Rose begged the police officers to spare the youngsters. She pleaded with them and said, “Shoot me and kill me instead!” The image of the Catholic nun in a simple white habit, spreading her hand and pleading with the authorities has since gone viral. The courage and the sense of self-sacrifice of this unarmed, defenseless, yet brave nun has captured the imagination of the world. It is a striking echo of what Jesus says in the Gospel reading, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
I would like to reflect on the “grain that dies” and draw out practical implications for ourselves.
The Seed Did Die
Jesus was powerful in his life. We are familiar with his story. He was impressive as a child, but especially after he began his ministry, he was simply unstoppable. He went about doing good and taking God’s message of love and salvation to all peoples, especially those who needed it the most. In life, Jesus was powerful. But it was not in his life that full extent of God’s saving power was revealed. It is in Jesus’ death that the full extent of God’s power and love was revealed. In churches throughout the world, it is not the image of Jesus walking on water, or healing people, or multiplying bread that is displayed. Rather, it is the crucifix, the death of Jesus that is the central image of the sanctuary. It was in losing his very meaningful, good, young, and vibrant life, that Jesus drew all people to God. Sr. Ann Rose is not admired because she saved her life. She has become a living witness to Christ because she was prepared to die—like a grain of wheat.
What does this mean for us? This means that we ingrain into our minds the law of Christian living that, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). There simply is no other way.
A Law Written in Our Hearts
As we get closer the events of Holy Week, the events of our redemption, the scripture readings make us aware of the newness that Christ brought into the world. In becoming “the grain of wheat that dies”, Jesus became the harbinger of a New Covenant. He became the omega point of the new way in which God embraced the world. The newness of the New Covenant lies on this—that Christ is the grain of wheat that dies for the life of the world. However, the fruit of New Covenant is also this: that those who benefit from the “grain that dies” would themselves embrace the newness of life. Jeremiah prophesied about this in today’s first reading. God says through Jeremiah, “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts” (Jer 31:33). In other words, we who are the fruit of the grain that dies—Jesus Christ—have the law of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, his dying and rising, written on our hearts.
What does this mean for us? This means that we, the followers of Christ, embrace God in the same way that God embraces the world and each one of us. This means that no one has to teach us the law of dying and living ; that the law of the grain of wheat that dies to bear fruit is instinctive to us; that we know that living is dying and dying is living; that we live each day in the New Covenant, in the newness of life, dying to ourselves by loving God and living for others. Sr. Ann Rose has the law of the New Covenant written in her heart. When a crisis unfolded, she responded from the law of the “grain that dies” written in her heart. As we look into our hearts, may we discover the same law.
Living to Die, Dying to Live
We might never find ourselves in the same crisis that Sr. Ann Rose found herself. But perhaps in ways that we do not think about, we already practice the law of that “grain that dies.” Parents are the best examples of this. Giving birth to children or adopting children, nurturing them, and finally one day seeing them move out as successful human beings is a dying that bears great fruit. It also tells us that the law of dying to live is built into human nature. It is also the law of nature. Spring is here and we can see new sprouts everywhere. New sprouts are the fruit of seeds that died to themselves.
Taking lessons from nature, as well as the lessons from the dying and rising of Christ, and applying them in our daily lives is where the rubber hits the road. There is one area that remains the greatest challenge: dying to self. Jesus himself found it difficult. Today’s second reading says, “In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death…. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:7-9).
Today, we must learn from Christ. Dying to self is not easy and this is why each Lent we embrace prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to die to ourselves in small ways. Sometimes the dying to ourselves is our Lenten penance. But to be Christ-like we think beyond them. To forgive someone we have not yet forgiven, to not be obsessed with winning arguments, to be willing to be taken for granted, to step out of our comfort zone to come to aid of those who are hurting, to stand up for the marginalized and those on the periphery, to put ourselves last instead of the desire to constantly be front and center, to be servants, to be constantly washing feet—this the meaning of becoming the “grain that dies.” Is this not what the life-example of St. Ann Rose tells us? To put it succinctly, dying like the grain is loving like Christ. And when we have done this all our lives, our final death itself will become a death that leads to everlasting life.
At every Eucharist, the wheat and the wine die to themselves, and become the source of eternal life. The Eucharist is a classic example that “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). May we become what we celebrate.