Year B – 5th Sunday of Lent

Year B - 5th Sunday of Lent

When Life Follows Death

(Jer.31:31-34; Heb.5:7-9; Jn.12:20-33)

Years ago, a man played piano in a bar. One night, a patron asked him to sing. ‘I don’t sing,’ he replied.

The customer persisted, telling the barman, ‘I’m tired of listening to the piano. I want that man to sing!’ The barman shouted across the room, ‘Hey buddy! If you want to get paid, then sing a song!’

The piano player was reluctant. He’d never sung in public before, but he tried singing ‘Mona Lisa,’ and just then his life changed, forever. He was Nat King Cole, the jazz musician who became a famous crooner. [i]

Sometimes something in us must die before we can produce new fruit. That’s the Paschal Mystery.

Most people think there’s only one kind of death, and that it’s final. But in his book The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser says there are two kinds. There’s terminal death, which represents the end of life and end of all possibilities. And then there’s paschal death, which is real death because something precious dies. It ends one kind of life, but it’s followed by a new, deeper and richer experience of life.

Wheat bag image

It’s this paschal death that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. He’s in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, talking to some Greek pilgrims. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest,’ He says.

This is the Paschal Mystery, where something dies so that something new can be born. We see it in our seasons, where spring always follows winter, and in controlled burns, where new growth always rises from the ashes. It also happens when we lose a job, a friend or a dream, and find that something new has taken its place.

This is the rhythm of life, but many people struggle to accept it.

Ron Rolheiser says that this is where we can learn from Jesus Christ, because the ultimate Paschal Mystery is His death and Resurrection, where Jesus experienced five key events: His death on Good Friday, His Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the 40 days after Easter, His Ascension and finally, Pentecost.

Together, these five events form a pattern which can help us understand what so often happens in our own lives.

Firstly, Good Friday represents the real death of something important to us, like losing our youth, our dreams or our wholeness. And Easter Sunday marks the beginning of new life.

But sometimes we’re so fixated on our old life that we don’t recognise the new one that follows. We are like the disciples who couldn’t recognise Jesus that Easter morning. ‘Don’t cling to me,’ Jesus says to Mary Magdalene. In other words, don’t cling to what I was. ‘See I am doing a new thing. Can you not see it?’ (Is.43:19).

Rolheiser says that’s why Easter is followed by 40 days. This is the time for us to grieve what we’ve lost and to adjust to the new. But we need to grieve well, and not bypass this experience with pious platitudes or allow alcohol or other distractions to smother the pain of our loss.

As Jesus says, ‘It’s better for you that I go away. Yes, you’ll be sad, but your sadness will turn to joy. But if I don’t go away, you won’t be able to receive my spirit. So, don’t cling; I must ascend’ (cf. Jn.16:7; 20:17).

Good grieving, Rolheiser says, means not just coming to terms with what we’ve lost, but allowing it to bless us. It means letting ourselves experience the sorrow of our losses, but also the pleasure of what we still have.

This is the moment of our Ascension, he says, when we let go of the old and allow it to bless us. It marks a refusal to cling to the old.

And finally, there’s Pentecost, where we receive a new spirit that will sustain us through our new life. We all need this new spirit as life changes, including the spirit of patience, courage and gratitude for all we have.

As Christians we know new life always follows death, but change can be hard.

If you’re struggling, remember Jesus’ Paschal Mystery and His 5-step process, where death and resurrection is followed by 40 days of grieving, then a glorious Ascension, followed by the spirit-filled joy of Pentecost. [ii]

The Paschal Mystery is an extraordinary gift. Through it, Jesus wants to heal our brokenness, just as He healed the brokenness of weeping Mary Magdalene and the two depressed disciples walking to Emmaus.

Jesus always offers us new life.


[ii] Ron Rolheiser OMI. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Crown Publishing, N.Y., 1999