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Gazing upon the face of Jesus

March 20, 2012
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33
Readings for RCIA: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45
The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B) invites us to fix our gaze upon Jesus, the model priest of suffering, compassion and human solidarity.
First, let us consider John’s Gospel story from Chapter 12 – a fitting climax to Jesus’ public ministry. It is the last official act before the events of his passion next Sunday. There are Gentiles, non-Jews, who seek Jesus out for the first time. They do not come simply to catch a glimpse of him, to have some general audience with him, but rather to “see” him. In John’s Gospel, “seeing” Jesus is believing in him. How simple yet how stunning a request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21)!
Throughout the entire Scriptures, men and women have longed to see God, to gaze upon God’s countenance, beauty and glory. How many times in the Psalms do we ask to see the face of God? “Make your face shine upon your servant” (Psalm 119:135). Not only do we beg to see God’s face, but we are told to look for it. “Seek my face,” the Lord urges in our hearts (cf. Psalm 27:8).
But we cannot seem to find the face we are told to look for. Then the laments begin: “Do not hide your face from me” (Psalm 102:2). “Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14). “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:2). We beg, we seek, but we cannot find God’s face. Then we are distraught. Moses, speaking as friend-to-friend, asked to see God’s face. But God said to him, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live” (Exodus 33:20).
When we ask in the Psalms to see God’s face, we are really asking to see God as God truly is, to gaze into the depths of God. In the last chapter of the last book of the Scriptures, it is written: “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). We see God’s face revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. How often do we long to “see” the face of Jesus? Where are we seeking his face today? What do we do when we finally “see” the face of Jesus?
Garden of suffering
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is filled with the thoughts and theology of Paul and John, but he also contemplates Jesus’ agony in the garden in relation to temple sacrifices and the priesthood according to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. An attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood of the Old Covenant. Furthermore, no text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin.
Hebrews 5:7-9 presents us with a different type of priesthood – one of extraordinary compassion and solidarity. In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us – he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside – only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. That is the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.
What does this image of Jesus teach us today? Far from creating an abyss between Jesus Christ and ourselves, our own daily trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself. The consequence is that from now on, not one of us can be bowed down under a painful situation without finding that Christ is, by that very fact, at our side. Jesus was “heard because of his ‘reverence’ or his ‘pious submission.’” And we are given the consolation that we, too, will be heard because of our own persistence in prayer, our reverence before God and our pious submission to his will for us.
Blessed John Paul II’s agony
We read in today’s Gospel passage that the Greeks address themselves first to Philip, who is from the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee: “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus” (John 12:22). To see Jesus, one must be led to him by an apostle. The testimony of those who lived with him, at his side, shows him to us and we cannot do without this testimony.
We need the apostolic writings, especially the Gospels, handed down to us by tradition, of which our parents, priests, deacons, teachers, catechists, preachers and other believers are witnesses and bearers of the Good News. How important and necessary it is to recognize those key people in our lives who are living witnesses and links to the tradition and the Good News about Jesus Christ!
One such person for millions of people throughout the world was Karol Wojtyla, the man we now know as Blessed Pope John Paul II. The world witnessed the agony and passion of this Successor of Peter in a most public way. As we commemorate the anniversary of Blessed John Paul II’s death on April 2, I cannot help but recall those moving days and see how much he revealed to us the face of God and the image of Jesus crucified.
One of the most powerful lessons he taught us in the twilight of his Pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made Blessed John Paul II waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. Many believe that the most powerful message he preached was when the words and actions failed.
One of the unforgettable, silent, teaching moments of those final days took place on Good Friday night 2005, while the Pope, seated in his private chapel in the Vatican, viewed the television coverage of the Via Crucis from Rome’s Colosseum. At the station commemorating the death of the Lord, a television camera in the papal chapel showed the Pope embracing a cross in his hands with his cheek resting against the wood. His accepting of suffering and death needed no words. The image spoke for itself.
Several hours before his death, Pope John Paul’s last audible words were: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” In the intimate setting of prayer, as Mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter’s Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2. Through his public passion, suffering and death, this holy priest, Successor of the Apostles, and Servant of God, showed us the face of Jesus in a remarkable way.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B is now available in book form. You can order your copy of “Words Made Flesh: Volume 2, Year B” from the Salt + Light online store.
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