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The Gospel in Lent

Fr Adrian Graffy explores the Sunday gospel readings for Lent 2012, which are taken from the Gospels of Mark and John, and discovers in them a common theme.

One of the great gifts of the Second Vatican Council to the Church was the three-year cycle in the lectionary for Sundays. The gospels for Year A in Lent have become particularly familiar, since they are used in preference to those of the other years when candidates for baptism are undergoing the scrutinies. On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent we are not surprised to hear the gospel readings from John about the Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind and the Raising of Lazarus. We are consequently less familiar with the readings for Years B and C. The gospels for 2012 (Year B) are taken from Mark and John. They have a shared focus on the cross of Christ.

Gospel Readings from Mark

The gospel readings for the First and Second Sundays of Lent are always those of the temptation of Jesus and his transfiguration, taken from one or other of the synoptic gospels.

This year on the First Sunday of Lent we hear Mark’s brief account of the temptation of Jesus (1:12-15). Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives no details of the temptations. He refers to the fact of temptation and then adds rather laconically ‘he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him’. For Mark the essential task of Jesus is to confront the power of evil, which is what Jesus is doing here. His challenge to the power of Satan restores harmony to the world, and like Elijah Jesus is strengthened by the food of angels. Jesus will confront the power of Satan above all as he takes up his cross.

Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus in 9:2-10 is very similar to that found in the Gospel according to Matthew. What is crucial is that the account is placed at the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to face the cross. In the extraordinary experience on the mountain a glimpse of the resurrection is provided, and Moses and Elijah testify to its truth.

For Mark the essential task of Jesus is to confront the power of evil

On Palm Sunday the passion story from chapters 14-15 of Mark is read, but on the intervening three Sundays, due to the brevity of the Gospel of Mark, gospel readings are taken from the Fourth Gospel.

Gospel Readings from John

On the Third Sunday of Lent the gospel reading proclaimed is John’s version of what has become known as the ‘cleansing of the temple’. This incident is of great importance in the preamble to the passion and death of Christ in the synoptic gospels, and consequently comes after the ministry of Jesus has ended. Curiously, in John it comes at the beginning of the ministry in 2:13-25. With his very first visit to Jerusalem John is stressing that Jesus will finally go to the city to face the cross.

John gives full detail of the actions of Jesus and of the violent disturbance he causes. What is unique to John is the dialogue which follows. When the Jews demand a sign, Jesus says: ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The evangelist explains that he is speaking of his body, though the disciples will only understand this in the light of future events. The body of Jesus is to be the new temple. Jesus brings a new form of worship of the Father.

The gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday is John 3:14-21. John 3 is a difficult chapter, which contains both words of Jesus and what appears to be commentary or explanation of the evangelist. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the evangelist develops the words of Jesus so that his hearers will grasp more fully the meaning of Jesus’ coming.

In this passage Jesus is referred to in the third person as ‘the Son of Man’, or simply as ‘the Son’. There is an early reference to Jesus being ‘raised up’ or ‘lifted up’. The good news is summarised by the famous verse: ‘For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.’ (3:17) All that happens to Jesus is the result of the love of God.

All that happens to Jesus is the result of the love of God

On the Fifth Sunday the gospel reading is John 12:20-33. This passage comes at the end of the public ministry of Jesus and just before the disciples gather in the upper room to hear his farewell words. The incident is triggered by the arrival of some Greeks who ‘wish to see Jesus’. Jesus speaks now of the prospect of being glorified. For John the raising up on the cross is also a glorification. The image of the grain of wheat which dies recalls the early Christian saying that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.

Jesus concludes with a prayer: ‘Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say: Father save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ (12:27-28) This seems to be John’s version of the trauma of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. The cup of suffering is not removed, but John’s Jesus knows that the road to the cross is the road to glory too.

The voice from heaven which ends the reading recalls the approving words of the Father at the baptism and transfiguration. God commends his Son above all in his ‘being raised up’. It is at this point that all people are drawn to him. In their desire to see Jesus the Greeks have represented the whole world. All are drawn to Christ as he is raised up.

The gospel readings for Lent in Year B thus provide many rich insights into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.