“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23)
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)
I have been privileged to see this wisdom of Jesus play out before my eyes in these last days. Yes, in a work of fiction from which I have been teaching in these last weeks. But also in everyday life which has been mine to witness in extraordinary ways.
First, the fiction. I am coming close now to finally pulling together a book study/movie discussion guide for Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I was prompted to do this a few months ago when I learned this classic book was to be made into a movie again. (As a side note, I have seen the movie and discovered it did not come close to approximating the episode that comes to mind now.) If you know the story, you will remember this. If you don’t, I will try to bring you up to this moment, without giving it all away.
Meg, the young protagonist in the novel, has answered the call to rescue her little brother from the grip of Evil itself. It finally comes to her that the only weapon she has which the evil IT does not have, is love…
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s.
And she had her love for them.
But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?
If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and love Charles Wallace.
A Wrinkle in Time, pp. 228-229
Meg knew her limits. She had the capacity to love, but not enough to love away all that was evil in the universe. In the faith tradition which holds you and me, we know that only Jesus was able to do that even as he points the way to that in today’s Gospel. Even so, Meg was still called to risk her life for the sake of the life of another. And she did, loving Charles Wallace all the way.
And this, something which has been mine to be a part of in these past few days.
A few weeks back, 93-year-old Vivian suffered a brain bleed. The damage was great and irreparable and her family opted to bring her home on hospice care. For the next almost two weeks, her 94-year-old husband sat by her bed, held her hand, and prayed and prayed and prayed. He was utterly heartbroken. From the start, I knew that they were just shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. Over the course of the last few weeks, I learned that they had been together much longer than that. For Bob actually held Vivian’s hand as he walked her to kindergarten 88 years ago.
As the vigil neared its end, Bob became ill as well and was taken to the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. A day later, his family talked his doctor into letting him go home, for they knew he had to be there when she died. And so he was. A day later he was back in the hospital once more. And a day after that, with a full heart and clear eyes, he declined all invasive treatment. He told me he was tired. He told me he only wanted to go to Vivian. I will not ever forget standing with him and with his family, praying for their hope and trust in God. His eyes were open and comprehending the whole time. Moments later, his nurse turned down the oxygen. After saying good-bye to his children, a few hours later he died, three days after his wife had breathed her last.
Yes, he was 94. And yes, his health had been poor for some time. And no, he could not imagine a life without his beloved Vivian. And so, in a world where our medical system is set up to sustain ‘life’ at all costs, he faced it down and chose something other, something more. I cannot help but believe that while he surely did it for himself, he also did it for her. For while there was nothing more he could do for her, nor nothing more he needed to do for her, Bob was imagining heaven as a place where he could still be and do for his beloved. Even as he had always done. And he was willing to die to be able to do just that.
And yet, as truly beautiful as this was to witness, as with the story of Meg and Charles Wallace, it was but one person loving with his whole self — with his life and with his death — one other person. Someone with whom he had built a life and raised a family and leaned on in his old age. Someone who had loved him in return. Yes, perhaps it is more rare than it should be and in that way perhaps it surely offers something which perhaps gives us some approximation of what will soon be ours to witness in Jesus on the cross in John’s telling now. But not the same. No, never the same as the one who in dying would ‘draw all people to himself,’ as John’s Gospel has it now.
Oh, I collect stories such as those I have offered here for they offer a tiny window into the cosmic gift which Jesus gave for you and me. And maybe in some ways they are the best we can do in the day-to-day in this world now. Though not the same and surely not enough, they give us a sense of the truth that in Jesus’ coming and living and dying lives were changed and continued to be changed, and for this we can be grateful.
And so it is that in a few short weeks it will be ours once more to stand at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Perhaps in our simply standing there again this year, we can comprehend a little more deeply the wonder of this sacrifice where death led to life, where a single grain produced countless others willing to do the same. And oh, as we leave the foot of that cross, perhaps we will also seek to have our own lives shaped little by little, more and more, in this sacrificial pattern of love which changed everything.
No, it cannot ever, will never be the same, even so, the call is still ours to follow and serve, isn’t it? Surely we do this with family members, as in the examples I offered here. And surely in the same way we are called to do so with others: with classmates and neighbors, with students and co-workers, with fellow citizens and other inhabitants of this beautiful broken world which God so loves. At least this is how it should be among you and I who seek follow him. Especially as, in our small acts of sacrificial love, we point to the One, to Jesus, who ‘was lifted up on the cross’ and in his submission, showed the whole world what such love and sacrifice mingled mean. And in so doing, gave life to a dying world. Even as you and I are also called to do…
- It is so that there is no sacrifice compared to the one offered by Jesus. Even so, even in the midst of the prediction he offers here, there is surely a call for us to seek to do the same. While they do not compare, what examples of this have you seen in the world in these last days?
- How does the daily witness of God’s people in our willingness to die even in small ways for the sake of others bolster the faith of those who join us on the journey? When have you known this to be especially so?
- Surely there is nothing more beneficial for us in our journeys of faith than to stand still at the foot of Christ’s cross in the weeks to come. How has doing so shaped you in the past? How do you intend to stand still in the perfect of love of Christ’s Sacrifice this season? What will this look like for you?