A reflection on the readings for March 17, 2024 — The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B)

Holy Week will be upon us in just seven days.  The week begins with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Sunday and ends with him in the tomb on Saturday after his Passion and death.

Timing-wise, today’s Gospel might seem a bit “off” when you consider that what we hear today occurs after the entry into Jerusalem we’ll hear about next Sunday.  Timing aside, though, this Gospel reading can serve as both a recap and a preview, an opportunity to prepare our hearts and minds for what’s to come.

We often hear that the people were expecting the Messiah to be a great “warrior king” sort of figure who would drive out the oppressors and restore Israel to the glory days of King David’s reign, but that’s an oversimplification.  Yes, the people were living in hope of a restoration, but there are ample contemporaneous writings that support that it wasn’t necessarily a renewal of David they expected, but rather a renewal of Moses — a new prophet who would be so close to God that he would become a shining new beacon who would reunite the people of God and lead them from oppression to freedom.

If that was their outlook, then people in Jerusalem would have been beyond excited that Jesus was going to be in their midst just as he was, and they would not be expecting a military leader.  They knew his name, they’d heard of his signs and his teachings, and they would have been curious to see him in person.  Indeed, the Gospel of John tells us that the real groundswell came because many of them had actually witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead just a few days earlier. These witnesses surely spread the word, telling their friends and neighbors, “He’s coming!  He’s coming!”

While it would be uplifting to think that the people were motivated by pure messianic anticipation, it’s clear that many in the crowd saw Jesus’ arrival as something closer to a “celebrity sighting.” The Gospel of John tells us of the day before Jesus entered Jerusalem, “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only on account of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”  We can also see this coming into play at the beginning of today’s Gospel with the Greeks who approached Philip.  Clearly, they recognized he was part of what they saw as Jesus’ entourage, and they tried to ingratiate themselves with Philip by addressing him as “Sir,” which in the Greek is actually “Kyrie,” that is to say, “Lord.”  A little over the top, perhaps, but these out of towners wanted to maximize their chances to see Jesus.

I’ve read reflections that paint these Greeks who approached Philip as kind of next-generation Magi, as gentiles who came from afar to adore this not-so-newborn Jesus.  But the Gospel tells us they “had come to worship at the Passover Feast,” so it would seem that they are already invested in the worship of the One True God and the practices that come with that worship, rather than being blank-slate pagans ready to be enlightened.  We’re all there too.

They needed, the crowds needed, and – speaking for myself – we need the corrective that Jesus provides.  They then – and we now – can get ahead of ourselves when it comes to the spiritual journey.

I may not look like it now, but over the years I’ve run 21 marathons, and like St. Paul, I totally appreciate the parallels between the spiritual and physical endeavors.

There’s an amazing energy at the start line of a marathon.  You’re surrounded by a sea of people, women and men of all shapes and sizes and colors, but every one of them facing their doubts and feeling just like you feel:  Expectant and nervous, excited and fearful, toggling between wanting to high-five everyone and wanting to find a corner to hide in.

There’s a very different energy after you’ve crossed the finish line.  The expectation and nervousness have been put to rest, the excitement and fear replaced by a sense of accomplishment, and that desire for solitude is nonexistent in the face of an overwhelming sense of community with those around you, even if you’re too exhausted to talk with them.

We can think of the Palm Sunday crowds and the people Jesus talks to today as all standing at that start line.  They think they know what they’re signing up for, but the coming week – the coming 26.2 miles, if you will – will test them.  And Jesus makes no bones about that when he speaks to them.  His understanding of the glory to come is profoundly different from what they’re thinking.

While there’s all this start line energy going on, we hear, “And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”  It’s easy to imagine that the crowd received that opening sentence with “Glory!  Yay!” until they heard the rest of what he was saying.  What Jesus presents them is, for most, a far cry from the discipleship they thought they were signing on for.  As Jesus said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Oh foolish men, and slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?

He has a work to accomplish, and he tells us that like him, we have to die to produce fruit, we have to lay down our life to preserve it, that it is only through serving we are honored.  We have to run every step of that marathon just as he did.  There’s no solo fide being carried along joyfully on the sparkly coattails of our Messiah, effortlessly reaching the finish line right behind him while he effortlessly does all the work.  He’s telling them and us in no uncertain terms that he’s going to follow the Father’s will and press forward, but he’s doing it to forge a path that we can more easily follow because he went down it first to clear our way.  Our individual crosses are easier to bear because he carried them first.

Like those at the marathon start line, Jesus knows what he’s setting out to do, but that doesn’t erase all fears.  In a foreshadowing of Gethsemane, he asks “I am troubled now, yet what should I say? Father save me from this hour?” If we’re to follow Jesus, we have to face those fears too.  He was looking to his own physical death; we’re asked only to look to the death of those attachments and habitual sins that keep us from true communion with God and one another.  Yet it seems to me that I can have a harder time laying down a bad habit than Jesus did laying down his life.  May we have even a microscopic fraction of the trust that Jesus had in God’s will for our good in all things.

As we head into Holy Week, let’s keep in mind that while our loving Savior wants nothing more than for us to be with him in Heaven for eternity, he’s not promising us a sparkly coattail ride to salvation.  We each have to do our part to follow him, which takes personal commitment, self-denial, and work.  God’s grace enables us to accomplish that work with him: it doesn’t excuse us from the work.

Like running a race, the effort throughout our lives will be hard, but we have the aid of the sacraments as we go along.  Let us allow the grace of Confession to unburden us from the sins that weigh us down and the Eucharist – the viaticum, food for the journey – to sustain us as we journey to our observance of the glory of the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord in the weeks to come.

Image: Adobe Stock. By BGStock72.

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Deacon Steve O’Neill was ordained for service to the Archdiocese of Washington in June 2013 and serves at St. Andrew Apostle in suburban Maryland.  After four years in the Marine Corps and three years at the University of Maryland (where met Traci, now his wife of 30+ years, and earned a degree in English), he has worked as an analyst with the Federal government.  Deacon Steve and Traci have two sons and two daughters and three grandchildren.

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