We Must Serve Christ as He Served Us
April 6, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Sunday of Lent
Reading I (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Reading II (Hebrews 5:7-9)
Gospel (St. John 12:20-33)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear one of the most important verses of the Old Testament, Jeremiah 31:31: The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be the like the old covenant I made with their fathers when they came out of the land of Egypt, because they broke that covenant. But this one is going to be different. I will write My law in their hearts and on their minds. I will be their God and they will be My children. It is in Christ that that covenant has been made. And being that we have been incorporated into Christ, that law is within each one of us. It is not a law that is on tablets of stone, but rather it is a law which is written in our hearts because, as we have seen before, it is not a covenant like any other that was made because, in this covenant, Jesus Christ Himself is the covenant.
Remember, it is not a covenant that is made with Jesus; Jesus is the covenant. So the covenant is a living Person. That is the part that is so important for us to understand. When the people of the Old Testament, through circumcision, entered into the covenant, it was the promises that God had made to Abraham and also the promises that were made to Moses, but it was a covenant that was on stone. The promises were there for the people, but it was something that they would still hold at an arm’s distance. They became sharers in the promises. But for us it is not just sharing in the promises in Christ, it is sharing in the very Person of Christ. That is what we have to understand when we begin to recognize the dignity that we have and the covenant that is ours to share in the very Person of Jesus Christ, but, of course, that comes with everything that it means to be the Person of Jesus Christ.
We heard in the second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews that Son though He was, He learned obedience through what He suffered. Now that does not even make sense to us. If He is the Son of God – and He is – how is it that He learned obedience through what He suffered? And then it says that when He was perfected, He became the source of eternal life to all who believe in Him. We would look at that in our logical minds and say, “Wait a minute. He is the Son of God, Who is obedient, and He is the Son of God, Who is perfect. So how can He learn obedience through suffering and how can He be made perfect? This doesn’t make sense.” It is not in the sense of learning the way that we would have to learn, or being made perfect as we have to be made perfect; but rather, it is that this suffering He endured in His humanity is what brought about our perfection, this is what brings about our obedience. It is not only for the physical and historical Person of Jesus Christ that this holds true, but it is for the Mystical Christ that this holds true. He is, as Saint Paul will go on to say, our pioneer and the perfecter of our faith.
We see that Jesus is not going to ask anything of us that He has not already done. He did not just simply come down from on high and say, “Now, what you people need to do is to take up the cross and suffer and learn obedience and become perfect.” He showed us the way. And the beauty of this for us is that He tells us in the Gospel that wherever He is, there His servant will be. And so that is why Saint Paul will be able to say later on, as we saw last week in the reading, that we are already seated with Him in Heaven – because that is where He is. Yet because His Mystical Body continues to live on in this world, He is right here with us. He continues to suffer with us; He continues to work in us and through us; His suffering continues in us and through us. On one level, we are already glorified with Him as we share in His divinity and we share in His Resurrection, His Ascension, and His glorification in Heaven; yet He continues to be here with us, sharing in our suffering, sharing in the cross, sharing in the passion.
So we see that it is human nature which has been perfected in Christ. It is not anything in His Person that needed to be perfected because He is already perfect, but it is human nature that has to be perfected. And in Christ, it is; in us, it is not. We share already in that kind of dichotomy, or that tension, or whatever you want to call it, where we are living in two worlds. If we are already in Heaven but we are here, if He is already in Heaven but He is still here, His humanity is perfected but He continues to live on in an imperfect humanity in us. Our humanity in Him is already perfected, but in ourselves it is not. So we continue to strive, as members of the Body, to be perfect as the Head. The Head and the members are united, and yet we are not yet perfected. We have not yet entered fully into that glory. We are already there on one level, but not yet there fully. But we know that we are already with Him, and yet He remains with us.
How beautiful that is for each one of us because it is not just a matter that He has gone forth from us and He simply waits for us to join Him, that He is simply sitting there watching us from on high, totally separated from what we have to endure – not at all. It is not merely even a matter that He has already endured it so now He is just sitting there cheering us on and telling us that we can do it and providing the grace for us. It is much more intimate than that. He has not abandoned us and He has promised that to us. He has promised us that He would remain with us all days until the end of the world. And indeed He is, in the Eucharist, but He is also with us as long as we are in the state of grace. He is with us every moment of every day. He is with us in our trials, in our sufferings, as well as in our joys and in our victories. He is with us in our temptations. He is with us when Satan attacks us. He has not abandoned us.
If the sacrifice for the salvation of souls is going to continue to be offered – and it is – so too the suffering that must be united to that sacrifice must continue – and so it does. Jesus Christ continues His life, His Passion, and His death in you; and you are already united with Him in the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the glorification. This is something that we obviously cannot fully understand; yet it is the reality that we are not separated from Him and He is not separated from us. Where He is, we already are, because wherever the master is, that is where the servant is going to be. The servant does not leave his master’s side. But in this case, He became the servant of all, and so He has not left us. This is the mystery of love: When two people love one another, they vie for service of one another, they put the needs of the other before themselves, they seek and anticipate the good of the other, and both try to serve the other; both persons make themselves the servant of the other person. So we recognize, and rightly so, that Jesus Christ is our Master and we are the servants. Yet He looks at each one of us, and out of perfect love, He says, “I want to serve you.” He remains with us because where the master is, there the servant will be. And so He remains with us and He serves us. Yet if we are united with Him in love, we remain with Him and we serve Him. It is in that way that the suffering and the glorification can be going on simultaneously, that what seems to be totally illogical makes perfect sense. It can only happen because He is both God and man, and because He has made us both human and divine as well – accidentally, again, not substantially.
But this is the reality that we live. We live in two worlds but we can only serve one master. There is no doubt about Our Lord’s choice because He made it very clear. He was obedient even until death, death on a Cross, Saint Paul tells the Philippians. His obedience was perfected in suffering so that our obedience can become His and it can become perfect obedience. And the only way that perfect obedience is going to be shown in us is through suffering. How will we know that our obedience is true and perfect unless it is demonstrated in the most difficult of circumstances? We can have a pretty good level of obedience. We can be obedient perfectly as long as it is what we want to do – but that is not obedience. Obedience is love. Perfect obedience is perfect love. Perfect love is perfect service. Perfect service is suffering for the other. So if we are willing to serve Jesus Christ then it is going to be serving Him the same way that He served us. And that is going to be through taking up our cross every day and following Him, because where the master is, there the servant is also. Our Master is in Heaven, but our Master is still carrying His Cross and still being crucified in His Mystical Body. So if we are going to make that choice to serve Him, it is going to be on the path to Calvary, it is going to be on the Cross at Calvary, as well as in the glory of Heaven.
It is not enough to be able to say that we want to serve Him in Heaven because that proves nothing. That does not demonstrate any kind of love or any kind of service or any kind of obedience. Our love, our obedience, our service to our Master will be demonstrated only on the Cross, the place where He made Himself most perfectly known as the Servant of all. At the same time, He tells us that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all men to Himself. So it is on the Cross that He asks that we will serve Him, as it was on the Cross that He served us. He is that grain of wheat that was buried in the ground dead and has come to life to bear great fruit. And if each one of us is willing to unite ourselves with Him on the Cross, we will die to self, and in dying to self we will live for Christ and that fruit will continue to be born in us and through us. Many people will come to Christ through that same mystery of being lifted up from the earth, of dying to self. That is our service to Christ. That is our sharing in this covenant.
When you think about when that covenant was made, it was on the Cross. We have no share in that covenant unless we are united with Him in His Crucifixion. Now we already share in the covenant because of our baptism, but recall what Saint Paul reminds the Romans. He says, Are you not aware that when we were baptized we were baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ? We were crucified with Him so that we could rise with Him. And so we already share spiritually in the Crucifixion in Baptism; we already share spiritually in His death and burial in Baptism; we already share spiritually in His Resurrection, His Ascension, and glorification in Baptism. But Jesus did not just do those things spiritually – He did them physically. We share in them spiritually; we must also share in them physically. And so now He offers us that opportunity.
As we make our way through Lent, today we begin Passiontide. Officially, today would be Passion Sunday, which is why all of the statues and all of the pictures are veiled now in purple for the next two weeks to remove from our senses everything that is beautiful, to remind us of the privation and the suffering that we are entering into in this Passion time. So as we have gone through Lent, through these first four weeks we have been struggling along with all of our penances and mortifications, now we plunge ourselves even more deeply. It is as if we could say that in the first four weeks we have been walking along from the time that Our Lord was condemned, but now we are at Calvary, now we are at the point of Crucifixion. Are we willing to go to that Cross with Him, to die with Him, and to be buried with Him, so that like Him we will be that grain of wheat that dies and will produce much fruit? In this way, He continues to live His life through us and we live our life in Him. That is the glorious exchange: that we are already glorified with Him and that He continues to suffer in us, that we serve Him and He serves us, that He loves us and we love Him, that He has come down into this world and He learned obedience through what He suffered, and when perfected, He became the source of eternal life to all who serve Him; so that in serving Him we will learn obedience, and through suffering we will be perfected in Him, so that we will be perfectly glorified in Him and have eternal life in Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.