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So it comes to this — the last chance, the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B). Lent felt new for the first weeks, then came “Rejoice” Sunday halfway through. Next week is Holy Week, with a logic all its own.
So this is it. If you haven’t had the greatest Lent or even if you have, this week is your chance to finish strong.
Reading the situation perfectly, the Church’s readings give us lessons about personal change.
Lesson one: The old you must die.
“Whoever loves his life loses it,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel, “and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”
This is a lesson everybody intuitively knows — so much so that it is easy to get it totally wrong.
Men who abandon their families, women who withdraw into themselves, even people who think they cannot stand the pain of life anymore, all start from a warped understanding of this lesson: The old you, the flawed you, the you that made bad choices, must die.
The difference in the Christian way is that we cherish the life God gave us and the vocation he called us to. We are not called to leave those behind.
What we are called to leave behind is the sinful, hurtful, calloused parts of our soul; the husk of the seed, not its core vitality. Put it in your past. Leave it in the confessional. Begin again.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” says Jesus, “it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
Second lesson: Learn obedience from what you suffer.
Far from the escapism of a decision to drop out of life, the Christian decision to die to self is a decision to enter more deeply into the suffering of life.
The Second Reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, describes the “loud cries and tears” of Jesus in his lifetime, then adds: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”
Rather than a sudden breakage from the past, the way a Christian “loses his life to find it” is being obedient through daily struggles.
Lose your life by breaking with the habits that get in your way, one at a time. First add time to pray. Then drop what monopolizes your time and attention. Then build habits of generosity.
Let go of what prevents you from growing. Find the small achievable goals that can keep you moving one step forward.
Embrace the struggle, and learn obedience from what you suffer.
“Where I am, there also will my servant be,” says Jesus.
Third lesson: Surrender to God.
When Westerners embrace Eastern religion, what often attracts them is the idea of “getting out of the way” in their spiritual life. Liberating themselves through surrender rather than building themselves through effort feels like a totally different approach from Christianity’s.
But as we see in today’s readings, it’s not. We die to self by fasting and almsgiving; we unite ourselves with God in prayer, and he does the rest.
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord in the First Reading, from Jeremiah. “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
This is the great promise of God in the Old Testament that is finally fulfilled in our faith: We stop the ceaseless effort to impress God and surrender to him instead.
Fourth lesson: Then let God build the new you.
Jesus describes now what we will see next week: “The ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
This week’s Psalm describes what that will look like.
God will “wipe out my offense and “thoroughly wash me from my guilt.” He will “create a clean heart in me,” and “take not [his] Holy Spirit from me.”
Those are the four lessons. And you see will see them all in the Communion line.
The grain of wheat that died and was fruitful is there in the host. We will form a line of souls who have prepared to receive him in a sort of surrender. And when we say “Amen” we will accept him into our lives let him do his work.