“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it produces much fruit.” (John 12:20-33)
Now what does that mean, exactly?
Well, you’re all smart. You know that Jesus isn’t just giving us a lesson in biology. And you know that St. John didn’t write his Gospel to give us a tutorial in growing wheat. Jesus is referring to himself. And he does so, as he does in his parables, by using a familiar image from everyday life to illustrate his point to his listeners. Jesus’s death will lead to new life not only for him, but for everyone. And all of us here believe that. Otherwise we wouldn’t be Christian.
But there’s another meaning that lies dormant within the seed of that image. And that has to do with our death. And I’m not talking about just our physical deaths and our resurrection with Jesus in the world to come. I’m talking about something that happens in our daily lives.
And that is, dying to self. In short, we are called to let go of, to relinquish, to let die, anything that keep us from greater freedom to follow Jesus. And by dying to our self we, paradoxically, experience new life.
Now, 15 years ago, when I took my preaching course in theology studies and we were told not to tell stories about yourself. But with this subject, I feel like I have to. So I’m going to relate two little stories.
The first is this: During my theology studies I developed carpal tunnel syndrome, or repetitive strain injury, depending on which doctor you talk to. It’s not life threatening, but as someone who works at a magazine as I do, it can be frequently frustrating and occasionally painful and always unpredictable.
Anyway, when it first happened I was lamenting about it to my spiritual director. I wanted to write whenever I wanted, to be pain free, to plan all sorts of articles and books and projects. But I couldn’t. I didn’t even know if I would be able to type from day to day—which made being a student rather hard. So I said to my spiritual director, “I don’t want this cross!” And he said, “Jim, it’s hardly a cross if you want it!”
That part of me that wanted to exercise complete control over my future, that wanted to have a perfectly functioning body, a body without pain, needed to die, like the grain of wheat. And it took some time for me to see the new life, but it came: It was the realization that everything I write—even this homily—is thanks to God's grace. It was a freedom from the need to control everything. And it even brought me humility, or at least some humility. Because I can’t make any grand plans about writing. I can just do it when I can. And leave the rest to God.
But dying to self is hard. Later on I said to my spiritual director that this wasn’t the kind of humility I wanted—this humility born of hard times. This is hard humility. He said, “Well, what did you have in mind”. And I said, “Well I wanted a humility that was easy, where people would say, ’Wow, he’s so humble.’” I wanted a humility I could be proud of!
Now you probably have far worse problems that than. You may be facing a truly serious illness, or someone in your family may be. Or especially these days you may have lost your job, or are worried about losing your job, or maybe you’ve lost a great deal of your savings. It’s a terrible situation to find yourself in. And it’s natural to be angry, sad or confused.
Yet in all these vulnerable situations there may be a new way of relating to God, and an invitation to experience new life. Now I want to be clear: I’m not saying that God wills these awful things, or that you should like them, or welcome them.
But one question the Christian you can ask during times of suffering this: In these difficult and painful experiences, are there grains of wheat that need to die so that you can experience new life? While you may be concerned, rightly, with a safe and secure financial life, maybe one thing that bothers you about your new financial situation is a dramatic loss of status. And maybe you might come to see that that’s not such bad to let go of. Maybe it’s been preventing you from some freedom. If you let those particular grains die, you might actually be freed of something. In the midst of suffering, you might experience some new life.
Here’s my second story: A few years ago I worked for many months on a project in a Jesuit work. At the end of the project, at a time when I expected a little acknowledgment or even a thank you, I got none. And I was furious. Now it’s natural to want to receive some gratitude for your work, but there was a much darker side. My ego demanded that I be recognized and when that didn’t happen, my pride was injured. My spiritual director said, “Why are you doing this work? For your glory or for God’s?” That grain of wheat, that overweening pride, needed to die.
Does all this sound easy? It’s not! As the Gospel says, the seed first has to fall to earth before it dies. And that falling is painful. In the Second Reading, St. Paul says that Jesus offers up prayers with “loud cries and tears.” Did you hear that? “Loud cries and tears.” Jesus accepts the future that God is holding out, but it hurts. It hurts.
But that is part of the process of dying to self.
Or does it sound masochistic? Too much like the old “offer it up” mentality? It’s not. Because painful as it is, it’s necessary step towards something lifegiving--freedom. Spiritual writers have used other metaphors to describe the process--being pruned so that you can grow is another garden-variety one. St. Ignatius of Loyola talks of “disordered attachments” that keep us bound and enslaved.
All of them mean what Jesus means when he offered us this homey image. Especially in dark times, we are often invited to let go, to relinquish, to abandon, to become more detached, but not simply for the sake of more pain or more suffering, out of a sick masochism, but for something greater—for new life.
And what did Jesus give up? Everything. He gave up everything. What did he let die? Himself.
Think about him on the cross. Jesus may have thought that his grand project was a failure: that his efforts to bring together the disciples were over; that his preaching hadn’t taken hold. He gives up his hopes on the cross. And, he gives up his very body. “This is my body, given up for you.” But the final word is not the suffering, but the resurrection. The death of the seed leads to the marvel of the blade of wheat. The crucifixion leads to the marvel of the resurrection.
And the one who made the unimaginable sacrifice, who let relinquished everything, was rewarded with unimaginable new life. I don’t know what it’s like to face financial uncertainty. For all of our vows of poverty, Jesuits live simply, but they, at least for now, live securely. So I can’t imagine what something like that must be like. But I can imagine what it’s like to be asked to die to yourself.
More importantly, I know what happens when you allow those grains of wheat to fall to the ground and die. It’s painful, it’s wrenching, it seems impossible at times to let go of whatever parts of your life that are keeping you cold and buried in the ground. But once that seed dies, there is always, always new life.
And if you doubt that, just stick around till Easter Sunday.