Homily for March 18, 2018 (5th Sunday of Lent)

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33


Suffering is a fact of human life.   If you haven’t suffered yourself, then I’m sure that you know someone who has suffered.  Suffering can be as sudden and sharp as the loss of a friend or a member of our families.  It can be as ordinary as a cold or the flu or as extraordinary as a rare form of cancer.  It can be as constant and numbing as sitting in a detention center or a bomb shelter.  Suffering is inescapable. 

But how do we deal with suffering?  Do we accept it with resignation or resentment?  Do we try to escape from it—or at least feeling it—with alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling, porn or something else?  Can we accept it, not necessarily as something good but as an opportunity for God’s grace to work?

If anyone knew about suffering, it was Viktor Frankl.  He was a young doctor when the World War II began.  He was also a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. He was sent to concentration camps.  He did slave labor.  He lived for years without knowing from one day to the next whether he would be killed.  He lost nearly every member of his family to the Nazis, including his parents and his wife. 

Yet Viktor Frankl not only survived the war and the Holocaust, he thrived.  He also helped others to survive and thrive.  While in the camps, he helped his fellow prisoners.  He envisioned how his life could be.  He imagined how he could help others heal in mind and body.  Despite the sadistic guards, the lack of food or clean water, and air of death all around him, he held on to hope.  He would later reflect:  “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel:  “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit….Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.”  He said these words just before the Last Supper.  It was how he made sense of the suffering and death he needed to face if he would be obedient to his Father and his mission on earth.  The law of his ancestors and the words of the prophets were written on his heart. They had to be fulfilled.

On Wednesday students at schools throughout the USA walked out of their classes in protests against violence, especially the mass shootings that have become all-too-frequent.  The protests lasted 17 minutes—one minute for each person killed at a high school in Florida last month.  The protests were a cry of frustration and desperation.  But they were also a cry of hope and a call to action.  It was one attempt to turn fallen lives into fallen grains of wheat. 

We don’t have to look for suffering.  It will find us soon enough, whether through our own folly, the sins of others or sheer accident.  God give us the grace, wisdom and courage to answer suffering with faith, hope and love. +