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Fifth Sunday of Lent

Seeing the Christ

From time to time, probably, all Christians ask themselves, 'what would it have been like to have been in the gospels, to have seen Christ face to face?' Today we get our question answered.

We came to know Jesus not by having met him during his life on earth. Rather we were introduced to him by reputation: those who formed us in the Christian faith told us about him. But just knowing things about Jesus is not what the Christian faith is about. We want to know and love Jesus. Having heard about him and having believed what we have heard, ultimately, we wish to see Jesus.

This is where today's gospel comes in. The Greeks who say to Philip, 'we wish to see Jesus,' say this not only in their own name, but also on behalf of all those throughout history who will hear about the fame of Jesus, but not have the opportunity to see him in the flesh. The Greeks speak for us.

When Jesus hears that there are some Greeks wanting to see him, his reply is not directed just at them, but it is a reply to all who wish to see him. Up to this point in St John's gospel, we repeatedly read, 'his hour had not yet come.' Now, things change. Now, Jesus says:

'The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.'

And once the voice of the Father has thundered from heaven, the gospel seems to shift up a gear. After years of preaching and working of miraculous signs, the Passion of the Christ begins: the whole sequence of events that we commemorate over the next two weeks.

But remember what it is that triggers this momentous change: the arrival of some anonymous Greeks and the seemingly innocuous request, 'we wish to see Jesus.' The consequences of such a simple phrase probably surprised the Greeks, and might surprise us. But the fact is that the whole mission of Jesus was that he should be seen; and be seen not just by the Jewish people, but by the whole of the wider world which the Greeks represent.

Obviously when I say that Jesus' mission was that he should be seen, I'm not talking about the first-century equivalent of being mentioned regularly in a newspaper society or gossip column. Christ is not a celebrity, he is the 'source of eternal salvation'; we don't long to see him with the eyes of idle curiosity but with the eyes of faith. It is that vision of faith which saves us from our sins, and seeing God in eternity is the reward of salvation. And so it is the news that the world is ready to see him that triggers the saving work of Christ: his passion and death.

At the end of today's gospel, Jesus says:

'I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.'

This is the closest he comes to actually answering the request of the Greeks who wish to see him. They were to see him, not for a quiet chat, but instead lifted up on the cross. There, they were drawn to him not by the grotesque spectacle of crucifixion, but by the love of God and their thirst for his mercy, which comes only through Christ.

In the liturgy we too are present in the gospel. We say 'we wish to see Jesus', and we do see him lifted up before us, at every celebration of the Eucharist. We see him in a particularly intense way through the celebration of the liturgy of Holy Week. We see Christ, and he draws us to himself, in the all the sacraments, especially at this time the Sacrament of Penance and the reception of Holy Communion.

The Christ we now see through sacramental signs, we still long to see face to face. This too is promised to us; Christ who was exalted on the cross was also raised from the dead, and draws all who long to see him to the fullness of happiness for all eternity in the vision of God, a joy that as yet we cannot possibly comprehend.

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