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Homily for March 21, 2021 – The 5th Sunday of Lent

Fr. Isaac Slater, OCSO

March 21, 2021 – The 5th Sunday of Lent

“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.”

Over a lifetime, in the face of various threats, real and imagined, each of us form a “self” like a protective shell, like the seed casing of a grain of wheat.

It may be necessary for a time but it’s meant to fall away.

When the seed falls to the earth, when conditions are right, if the sun shines, if the ground is fertile and moist, the shell of the seed breaks apart, the impulse of growth within it is stirred to life and breaks out like a chick from an egg.

The death of the shell is the birth of the stalk of wheat.

If a grain of wheat were to somehow stubbornly resist the call of life, the moisture of the soil, the warmth of the sun, and the corresponding expansive stirring of life within, if it clung to its shell and refused to break out…

…it would remain just a grain of wheat and never realize the fruitfulness it was made for (like the steward who buried his talent).

The whole spiritual life of conversion seems to involve repeated periods of forming the shell we need for a time, then breaking out of it, putting down fresh roots and shooting up in a more and more fruitful yield of wheat.

In the gospel, Jesus has come to the defining, culminating moment of such transformation in his life; he is troubled, tempted to hold on to the point he’s attained …but realizes it’s for the sake of this ultimate surrender, this giving up, this letting go of everything, that he’s come into the world.

He prays to the one who can save him from death—not physical death, which he undergoes, but the spiritual death of holding on to the shell, of remaining shut up in the seed casing and refusing to be transformed.

Jesus was troubled, he offered prayers with loud cries and supplications—to break out of the shell brings great suffering, our fear and resistance is primal—yet he learns obedience through what he suffers, he casts himself to the earth, is broken apart…

…and becomes within us the source of eternal salvation, becomes a way of living without holding on to anything, not even life itself.

THIS is the Paschal law of life he writes in our hearts, that whoever holds onto a gift loses it, whoever spends it with lavish abundance gains the hundredfold.

“I will place my law within them—my way of surrender, my willingness to suffer, to give up everything—and write it upon their hearts.”

Jesus was troubled by the deep natural instinct to preserve his life; for us, the last and perhaps hardest layer of armor of all to let go of is our guilt and self-hatred, our attachment to our sins.

This is the innermost layer, the shell within the shell, the last protective casing, that has to break open if we’re not to remain stuck forever, weighed down by heavy armor…

…if we want to stretch out delicate tendrils into the wet black earth and start to spread and grow… we have to let go of our sins

and accept every facet of our past, every side of ourselves, every moment of our lives.

Recently we heard about the Brothers Karamazov and the provocative teaching of the elder Zosima that we are each guilty to all for everything.

The epigraph to that book is today’s gospel, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a grain of wheat but if it dies it bears much fruit,” and hints at what Zosima’s teaching might mean.

Only Christ, who alone is innocent, willingly assumes the place of one who is guilty to all for everything; he “becomes sin,” and takes on himself the guilt of all.

To the extent that he lives within us and has written his paschal law on our hearts we too lay down our lives for one another, cast the seed to the earth …

To the extent that he lives within us we willingly take on ourselves the guilt of all; instead of defending ourselves we give way; instead of accusing we take the blame and do penance for our enemies, returning good for evil.

As spring arrives, as we approach Holy Week and our immersion in Christ’s paschal mystery… may his risen life stirring within us, transform the hard, tiny shell we cling to into a fruitful harvest.