Reflection on the Gospel for Sunday, March 21 by Mother Sofia Millican, the Abbess of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey
Today, we are invited into a key moment in Jesus’ life, the moment when he faces his imminent death and comes to terms with it. The scene will be echoed again and again this week, as we hear stories of others who come face to face with death. We will hear of Susanna, of the woman caught in adultery, of the Israelites threatened by deadly serpents, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and finally of Jeremiah listening as his enemies plot to take his life. With each passing day, Jesus moves closer to his Passion. Now “the hour has come” and Jesus is “troubled’ (Jn 12:28). This single word suggests a parallel to the anguished prayer of Gethsemane, described at length in the Synoptic Gospels. Another parallel is found in the Letter to the Hebrews: “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb 5:7). These latter accounts emphasize the anguish of Jesus in the face of death, while taking its resolution somewhat for granted. John’s account, on the other hand, encapsulates all the mental and emotional struggle into a single word, “trouble,” but gives deeper insight into how Jesus understood and accepted his death.

In a year that has counted the untimely deaths of more than two-and-a-half million of our brothers and sisters from the coronavirus, and no-one knows how many more from related deprivations, facing death is something humanity has been called to in an acute way. Whether we have come to terms with it is another question. No doubt many on the front lines of healthcare and of personal or family tragedy have entered the sacred place of Jesus’ anguish, forced to face questions of meaning that ordinary life places on the margins. But what of those of us who have not been called to such a direct confrontation, who read about it in the papers. What of those of us called to live by St Benedict’s words: “Look death daily in the eye (RB 4:47)?” These words are a call to live on the margins, existentially speaking, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. This is the grace of the moment, which I would like to explore a little today.

Three verses from today’s gospel give us an insight into the spiritual content of facing death and coming to terms with it:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, 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)
The first thing is to see oneself, one’s life as a grain, holding within itself the possibility of fruit. The grain is tiny, dry, and very poor. It does not see the fruit; this is of the essence. But if one believes and entrusts oneself to the power of the Giver of life, one may learn to let go, to allow oneself to fall, to submit to being broken open, so that this abundant life may be released.

“Father, glorify your name.”
“I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” (Jn 12:28)
The one who falls, falls into the hands of God. This, too, is of the essence. The relationship with the Father is indestructible, even though it will pass through the dark valley of incomprehension. A life that is given, not just taken away, will be raised up by the One in whose eyes every death is precious. To be raised up as a fragrant offering is to be glorified.

“Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.” (Jn 12:26)
These verses open a door and invite us in. Will we enter this door? We who are baptized have been baptized into his death. We walk with him on the road to Jerusalem and beyond. Jesus offers us the grace of participation in his moment of surrender. Everything is for our sake.

In this we look to the martyrs to guide us, those followers of Christ par excellence. I think of those recent martyrs who mean so much to us, especially at that moment of their lives when they faced their death and came to terms with it, resulting in the choice to go forward toward the “hour.”  Stanley Rother, the missionary priest from Oklahoma….