Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
At first glance, it seems that Jesus is using the politician’s campaign-season playbook. Philip and Andrew (two apostles with Greek names) bring Jesus a simple request from some Greek proselytes (honorary Jews): “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Rather than answer the question straightforwardly, however, Jesus opts to stick close to his talking points. He goes on to speak of the seed that must die if it is to bear much fruit, the need to surrender one’s life in this world, the cost of discipleship, his spiritual distress, his trust in the Father, and the manner in which he was about to die. By this point, Philip and Andrew are probably looking at their watches, thinking, “He could have just said no…”
But of course, Jesus is answering the question. He is simply answering it a deeper level than either the Greeks or his disciples understand at that moment. “Seeing” often has a special meaning in John’s Gospel. It isn’t just physical vision. It is understanding; it is penetrating reality. And, unlike a camera lens, we are never just passively recording the data within our field of vision. We are constantly filtering out irrelevant details while giving more attention to certain objects—all according to our life experiences and our inner scale of priorities. My brother is an architect, for instance. And even though, in terms of raw vision, we might look at the same building, he always “sees” something more–its proportions, its detailing, the way it turns corners. For the same reason, a wife might understandably feel hurt if her husband doesn’t “see” her new hair-style or dress; this “blindness” suggests that her appearance is no longer important, that her beauty no longer captivates. What we “see” depends very much on the kind of heart and the kind of desires we have: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”
In a similar vein, Bl. John Henry Newman, the famous 19th-century English convert to Catholicism, once said (here),
For is not this the error, the common and fatal error, of the world, to think itself a judge of Religious Truth without preparation of heart? … [I]n the schools of the world the ways towards Truth are considered high roads open to all men, however disposed, at all times. Truth is to be approached without homage.
At this level of this deeper vision and judgment, then, we can see how Jesus is actually speaking very much to the point. He responds to Philip and Andrew by sketching the preparation of heart those must have who want to “see” him.
The heart that “sees” Christ is not the heart of an aloof, scientific observer or of a curiosity-seeker. It is the heart of one who has been “humbled” like the seed that dies (NB: “humility” comes from humus: “soil”). It is the heart of one who surrenders and risks his life on God’s promises: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” It is the heart of someone who follows Jesus in suffering: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.” It is the heart of somebody who finds himself “troubled” by the Father’s will—as Jesus is today—and yet returns everything in praise: “Father, glorify your name.” To “see” the Father, in other words, we need a heart like Christ’s.
And most especially, we need Christ’s own heart to see in the cross–ours and His–not just horror, but the terrible beauty of the one who has loved us to the end: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” In the old calendar of the Church, today marked the beginning of Passiontide. And still today we can feel the transition into the atmosphere of his suffering. From today through Holy Week, all the readings and prayers at Mass highlight Christ’s path to Calvary. Ritually, we emphasize the cross by covering it (“absence makes the heart grow fonder…”). And, in light of these words of the Gospel, the elevation of the host and chalice at the Mass takes on a special meaning. All this is the Church’s way of letting Christ “be lifted up from the earth” so that all men might be drawn to Him.
The Cross thus becomes the true proof of our hearts, God’s “judgment” upon the world: if we can “see” his glory there—in His cross and in our crosses—then our hearts are ready. Perhaps this Sunday is a good moment to ask: has my Lent—my prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—prepared my heart to “see” my crucified Lord? We begin in earnest today.