Over the past year it seems that priests and funeral directors are not the only ones to have become familiar with the theme of death and burial. We have heard on the news on an ongoing basis about the tragic death toll from Covid. On a less tragic, but still often upsetting level, other things have fallen on the ground and died: job prospects, the special events in people’s lives, opportunities to get together with our families and friends, holidays and much more. So much seems to have been taken away and some of those things may never come back.
In the gospel today we hear about some Greeks who are eager to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew go and tell Jesus. Unexpectedly, Jesus replies with a cryptic metaphor about a wheat grain being buried in the ground, but later producing an abundance of life. Jesus is anticipating his own death and resurrection. He also wants to bring home to his disciples that if anyone really wants to see Jesus, they will see him most clearly when he is raised up on the Cross. Here we see the sacrificial love of God in all its wonder.
The image Jesus uses to speak about death and new life is one his disciples could relate to and I think we can too. At this beginning of springtime we begin to see all the new life emerging from what has lain buried in the earth. “Now the green blade riseth”, in the words of that beautiful Easter hymn. That new growth will in turn give rise to yet more life. Archbishop St Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 picked up on this theme:
“To each one of us Christ is saying: ‘If you want your life and mission to be fruitful as mine, do as I do. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest.’”
Romero was speaking about Jesus, but his words echo through his own self-offering in the service of the poor and especially through his death. When Romero speaks about being killed, he doesn’t mean that everyone has to die a martyr. This is really a message about allowing our own vanity and selfish ambition to die, together with everything that prevents us from being fully human. This is not a message about clinging to a mortal life, but about dying to live.
For Christians, Jesus is not a remote figure who did something strange and wonderful so that when we die, we go to heaven. Instead he calls us to follow him and to serve him by giving of ourselves for the good of others. Following Jesus means taking up our cross, whatever form it takes. St Rose of Lima reminds us:
“Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”
It was when he was lifted up on the Cross that Jesus would draw all people to himself. The death of Jesus was not just some tragic waste of a life or the premature end of a wonderful story. It is the key point of his life on earth. Through his death, God brings new life.
Even out of some of the losses and tragedies of this year, we have seen signs of new beginnings. There are some inspiring examples of people giving of themselves for others. Even out of loss and sadness there are signs of new purpose and restored hope.
We don’t need to die on a cross in order to follow Jesus, because Jesus has already done this for us, so that we might live. Whatever pains we have to bear, whatever sacrifices we make, whatever we lose in life, we can be sure that we do not have to bear these things in human strength alone. When we follow Jesus, when we lay down our lives in his service, we find the grace of God enters into our lives. Through our experience of loss and of death, we find the life that lasts into eternity.