5th Sunday of Lent Year B – March 17, 2024

 5th Sunday of Lent Year B – March 17, 2024

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


Theme: Lenten Season is the Time We Prepare Ourselves for the New Covenant Through Jesus


Today is the fifth and last Sunday of Lent. Next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. The liturgy of last Sunday taught us about the importance of confession. We learned that the Lenten season is the time to become aware of our sins, confess them, and live out our discipleship in “daylight.” God is the Father of mercy. When we regret our wrongdoings and confess them sincerely, by his grace and love, he forgives us and enables us to return to the community of his faithful. I encourage those who have not made their confession yet to do so this week. I will be in the Church (in the Confessional room) this Wednesday, March 20th, from 5:00 pm to 6:30 p.m.) Let us take advantage of this opportunity and prepare our hearts to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is also our resurrection to new lives.

Today's Scripture readings prepare us for the new lives that we will start at Easter. Our new lives will be based no longer on the old covenant but on the new one. Prophet Jeremiah prophesied this new covenant in our first reading. And our Gospel passage demonstrates that this new covenant is fulfilled with Jesus.

Our first reading comes from one section of the book of the prophet Jeremiah called a “little book of consolation” or a “book of comfort” (Jeremiah 30-33). The whole book of Jeremiah was written amid the ruin of Judah, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians, and the deportation of their people in exile in Babylon. This book consists of constant laments, predictions of the devastation, and general expressions of woe, except in this small section (ch. 30-33) where the prophet conveys hope. In our first reading passage, Jeremiah prophesies that, although the chosen people broke the Sinai covenant God forged with them through Moses, God promises to establish a new covenant with them. This new covenant will be different from the previous one. The difference is that the old covenant through Moses was the law written upon stones, while the new covenant will be the law written upon their hearts (v. 33). This new covenant will be a new start of a strong relationship because God will forgive and forget their sins and, therefore, he will be their God, and they will be his people. Also, note the universal character of this new covenant, which is expressed by the mention of both the “house of Israel and the house of Judah” in v. 31. The “house of Israel” refers to the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the “house of Judah” alludes to the Southern kingdom of Judah.

A brief history here will help us to understand the importance of naming both kingdoms. The twelve tribes of Israel were split into two kingdoms due to the dispute about who could succeed Salomon as a king: Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, or Jeroboam, the servant who rebelled against Solomon. Ten tribes teamed up and formed the Northern kingdom of Israel, with Samaria as the capital and Jeroboam as a king. They are identified as Israelites. The two other tribes (Judah and Benjamin) formed their kingdom in the South called Judah, with Jerusalem as the capital and Rehoboam as the king. The modern Jews are the descendants of this kingdom. Both kingdoms became strong and independent. They created two distinct lineages in the history of the people of Israel. Each has his own kings and even own prophets. Unfortunately, they both fell into captivity under different powers at different times. In around 722 B.C., the Assyrians destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the Israelites were taken to Assyria. Some of them took refuge in the Southern kingdom. The few who remain in the ruined land of Israel are identified as “Samaritans.” They intermarried with pagan nations. The exiles never returned to their land. They are considered “The lost sheep of Israel.” The Southern kingdom of Judah was ruined in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, who deported their inhabitants into exile in Babylon. The Jews returned to their land after nearly 70 years of captivity with the permission of Cirus, the king of Persia, who conquered the Babylonians. They considered the Samaritans as not being any more part of the “chosen people” because of their intermarriages with pagans.

Now, in our first reading, God promises to establish a new covenant with both the “house of Israel” and “the house of Judah,” meaning all twelve tribes of Israel, including the Samaritans and the “lost sheep of Israel.” We can also see this universal character of the covenant in our Gospel. First, at the beginning of the passage, with the presence of the Greeks who came to see Jesus (see John 12: 20-21). These Greeks represent the non-Jews, including all of us. Second, at the end of the Gospel story, Jesus declares that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw to himself not only the Jews but everyone (see John 12: 32).

Our first reading teaches us that the Lenten season is when we prepare ourselves for this new covenant. Like the people of Judah, many times we, too, failed to keep God’s commandments. Here, God promises us that he will forgive all our sins and not remember them anymore. He will be our God, and we will be his people in a new covenant that he will forge with us. Then, we are called to recognize our sins and confess them before we begin a new life in a new covenant, which becomes effective through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, as we heard in our Gospel.

So, preparing ourselves for the new covenant entails accepting and carrying our crosses with courage and faith. In our Gospel, Jesus speaks of his cross by mentioning some reasons for his death. These reasons should motivate us as we also accept carrying our crosses and following after him. First, he speaks of his cross as a sign of his glorification. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (V. 23). This teaches us that we should not be terrified by what we go through daily. Suffering is part of our lives. Therefore, we should see the glory of God even amid trials.

Second, using the example of a grain of wheat that cannot produce much fruit unless it falls to the ground and dies, Jesus declares that his cross is a self-gift that will result in eternal life (v.24). Jesus accepted to carry his cross until the end because he knew that the result of his suffering is the eternal salvation for all of us. We, too, are called to accept our crosses with faith, knowing that the result of this is our salvation and the salvation of all those we serve.

Third, Jesus speaks of his cross as the way that all those who love him will follow to inherit eternal life (vv. 25-26). We should not run away from our crosses. We are Christians, so our calling is to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. Let us have the courage to “hate our lives in this age,” meaning to love Jesus and his mission above all. Only in this way will we preserve them for eternal life (v. 26).

 Fourth, Jesus’s cross marks the time of judgment when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be driven out (v. 31). The cross of Jesus conquered Satan. When we carry our crosses and follow after Jesus, we will defeat the devil of our time.

Fifth, Jesus speaks of his cross as the moment he will draw everyone to himself (v. 32). We carry our crosses not only for our own salvation but for the salvation of everyone. Our mission consists of bringing everyone to inherit eternal life.

To accept and carry our crosses the way Jesus did, the sacred author of our second reading presents us with the prayerful life, reverence, and obedience of Jesus to imitate. He says that while living, Jesus offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his reverence (Hebrew 5: 7). Our Gospel speaks of this moment of prayer and of how God listened to his supplication (see John 12: 28). Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.” (Hebrew 5: 8). We should be men and women of prayer, reverence, and obedience to God. May the liturgy of this Mass give us the grace that we need to accept and carry our crosses with courage and faith as we prepare ourselves during this Lenten season for the new covenant that we will celebrate in Easter. Amen

As the Lenten season comes to an end, it would be necessary to briefly review what our Holy Mother Church tried to teach us through the sacred Scriptures of this liturgical year B.

The Scripture readings of the first Sunday prepared us to know that the Lenten season is the time to resist Satan with all his temptations. The way Satan tempted Jesus in the desert is the same way he continues to tempt us today. When he tempted Jesus, Satan aimed to prevent him from starting his ministry because he knew that Jesus’ ministry, which consisted of calling people to be members of God’s kingdom that he came to inaugurate on earth, would make him lose people on his side. Likewise, by tempting us today, he intends to prevent us from respecting our Lenten observances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He knows that Lenten observances lead us to repentance, making us members of God’s kingdom. We were prompted to resist Satan with all his temptations during this Lenten season.

The liturgy of the second Sunday reminded us that the Lenten season is our “journey of faith.” Although this “journey of faith” is challenging as it entails crosses, the glory of the Transfiguration that we experience at each Mass must motivate us to persevere until we reach the destination: which is the new life in a new creation in the heavenly kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate on earth, which we will celebrate in Easter.

The Bible readings of the third Sunday taught us that the Lenten season consists of following God’s commandments and letting Jesus cleanse our hearts as they are the Temples of the Holy Spirit and the House of God, in the way he cleansed the Jewish Temple. We learned that we cannot transform our hearts, the Houses of God, into marketplaces, meaning the place of sins. Whenever it happens, we need to let Jesus enter our hearts through the sacrament of confession and clean them up of all sins. 

The liturgy of the fourth Sunday called us to become aware of our spiritual alienation caused by our sins. Like the Babylonian exiles, we, too, are alienated from God by sin. We were also called to decide to return to God through the sacrament of confession. When we regret our wrongdoings and confess them sincerely, God, by his grace and love, forgives us and enables us to return to the community of his faithful. Third, since our communions with God and the Christian community are restored through confession, we should now live out our discipleship, not in the darkness, but in “daylight’.

Finally, the Scripture readings of the fifth and last Sunday call us to prepare ourselves for the new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied in our first reading and that Jesus fulfilled in our Gospel. In this new covenant, God promises to forgive our sins and not remember them anymore (first reading). To be members of this new covenant, Jesus, in our Gospel, asks us to accept and carry our own crosses (all trials and suffering we go through daily) with courage and faith. He invites us to see through our crosses the glory of God, the self-gift that results in eternal life, the moment to defeat Satan and the way to bring the brothers and sisters we serve to everlasting life. To be able to do so, our second reading calls us to imitate Jesus in prayer, reverence, and obedience.

Note also that the first readings selected for the Lenten season of this liturgical calendar B developed essential points of the history of our salvation intending to prepare us for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery (Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord). So, we meditated on (1) the covenant that God had with Noah (first Sunday), (2) the covenant through Abraham (second Sunday), (3) the covenant at Sinai through Moses (third Sunday), (4) the people of Israel broke the covenant and as a result, they were deported to exile in Babylon (fourth Sunday), and (5) Jeremiah prophesized a new covenant with the “house of Israel” and the “house of Judah” marking the universalism (fifth Sunday), which God will establish with all of us through the blood of his only Son Jesus on the cross. We will celebrate its inauguration from Passion Sunday throughout the Easter season.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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