5th Sunday of Lent

The Naked Soul of Humanity

By: Mary Jo McDonald

In Lucinda’s homily of the First Sunday in Lent, she spoke about the importance of following Jesus into the desert as the way to confront our fear of death. In subsequent Lenten Sundays, Ann Marie’s homily reminded us that in following Jesus we never walk in darkness for he is the Light and, in that light, we are transformed. However, the transformation process is not an easy one. John portrayed the process as one of being carved out, deconstructing our empty temples, so as to become a monstrance, a holy container that radiates Jesus to others.

Today’s readings for the fifth Sunday in Lent, draw us deeply into the raw reality of this transformative process as we willingly following Jesus.  They touch us at our most basic and instinctual level where we meet a seemingly incomprehensible paradox: in order to live we must let go of our life!

Even Jesus had to struggle with this paradox. On the one hand we hear him assert in the Gospel that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And yet, in the letter to the Hebrews Jesus quite clearly did not want to die. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” Jesus was human as well as divine, and human beings cherish life.

The instinct to survive is our strongest instinct.  We recall many stories of the heroics involved with surviving against great odds.  There is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1914.  After his ship the Endurance was crushed in ice, for two whole years Shackleton led the crew across ice floes to a camp on Elephant Island, living solely on seal meat. He later navigated a small boat across a length of treacherous ocean to South Georgia Island, where he found help at whaling station. Shackleton later wrote, “We had suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory… We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Shackleton’s story shows us that something happens in the depths of human suffering where the instinct to survive is most potent. In the depths of human suffering, we stand face to face with human limitation, our vulnerability and weakness. Here we are stripped of any illusion that we are anything other than human. Clearly, we are not God. Clearly, we need God. In this moment of surrender to God everything changes. In surrender our hearts are opened to God as never before. And it is only in opening our hearts to God that we are able to receive the abundance of grace that God so desires to give us. This is the moment of our greatest transformation where our likeness becomes more like Jesus.’ This is the moment when the naked soul of humanity reaches out to the glory of God and discovers previously unknown strength and wisdom.

Yet, for many of us, blessed with good health and the availability of the necessities of life, confronting our human frailty seems remote, removed from the purview of our everyday life. The gift of today’s readings is that they invite us to connect with Jesus at this basic human level. We can empathize with his “loud cries and tears.” We can imagine the deep-down horror that he must have felt in facing his death. This visceral connection with Jesus not only helps us to appreciate all that Jesus willingly accepted out of Love for us, but just as importantly, becomes the necessary starting point for our own transformation! Intellectual assent is not enough! I can understand and agree, in principle, that death and new life are intimately connected, but if I do not join Jesus in his human experience, then I am removed from the experience and, so, unable to journey with him into the “Father’s glory.” Being present with Jesus in his suffering also allows us to discover Jesus in the depths of our own suffering. We become bound in love there.

What’s it like to have someone share our suffering or experience times with us when we feel most vulnerable and weak? Is it not a time of great pain but also of great intimacy where we experience being fully known and in the knowing, loved? I work as a hospital chaplain with veterans. Many of them have shared that they experience a deep bond of love with their fellow veterans; a bond that they have not shared with anyone since. They tell me that that special bond happened because they faced death together, they wept and ‘had each other’s back’ as they faced the terror of war together. They felt known by their fellow veterans at a time of their greatest fear and vulnerability but at the same time empowered by the acceptance and care they received to ‘soldier on.’

Jesus gives us a sobering reminder that if we cling fearfully to our life above all else – in other words, always play it safe – in the end we will lose it anyway and along the way we will be less of a person for it. By relying solely on our own power, we will never “reach the naked soul of man…who reaches out to grasp the glory of God.”  If we trust God, and allow Jesus to be with us at every moment of the journey, we will receive another form of life, one that surpasses what we could every imagine. It is in this moment of surrender that we allow the grace of God’s love and truth to fill our minds and hearts…and to ultimately, lead us to salvation.  Amen.