Sunday Sermon for March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

The first reading today is one of the most important in all of the Old Testament because it plainly declares that God is going to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Then the Lord clarifies the point further by stating this covenant will not be like the one He made with the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. The new covenant, rather than written on stone, will consist of God’s Law written upon the hearts of the people.

God had already made several covenants with humanity beginning with Adam and Eve, then with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Scott Hahn describes these covenants in a broadening manner: the covenant with Adam and Eve is with a married couple; with Noah, a family; with Abraham, a tribe; with Moses, a nation; with David, a kingdom. Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant being made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, but it encompasses all of humanity.

The Prophet Isaiah, when speaking of the suffering of the Messiah in chapters 42 and 49, says God will make the Messiah a covenant to the people; verses 42:6 and 49:8 both say “I have given you as a covenant to the people.” The covenants God made with the Jewish people made them the People of God. In the covenant God made with the people through Moses, the terms of the covenant were written on tablets of stone. As we see from Isaiah, the new covenant is a Person, the Person of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel reading our Lord speaks of His hour three times. He says that God is glorified in His hour and that it is for the purpose of His Passion that He came to this hour. Based on His example of the grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying to produce an abundance of wheat, we can surmise His hour is His suffering and death. At the end of the reading He also tells us that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to Himself. St. John mentions this indicated the kind of death Jesus would die.

Both of these points from today’s Gospel are of paramount importance. First, the hour is when the covenant is established. At the Last Supper our Lord states that His Blood in the chalice is the Blood of the covenant. During the Passover meal He did Sacramentally what He would do physically on the Cross the next day. But it is the physical shedding of His Blood on the Cross that established the covenant. So, the Passion is the hour of the covenant; it is the hour when creation is remade. We must understand that while Jesus came into this world to be the Messiah, the work of the Christ was not accomplished until His death and resurrection,and His Ascension. So, this is the hour when Jesus is actually established as the Messiah, the hour when the prophecies of both Isaiah and Jeremiah are fulfilled.

The second point, that of drawing all people to Himself when He is lifted up from the earth, refers to our incorporation into the covenant. For the Jewish people, they are brought into the covenant by the circumcision of the males. To be drawn to Jesus is not an objective point of simply believing in who He is or what He did for us; rather, it is to be drawn into His Person. This happens at the moment of our baptism, the moment when we are incorporated into the covenant.

In the second reading St. Paul says Jesus offered prayers and supplications to the One Who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverence. Jesus was not spared death; as we heard in the Gospel reading, the reason He came into this world was to die. No, He was victorious over death; He destroyed death in His resurrection. Prior to when our Lord entered into death,all of humanity remained in the abode of the dead, Sheol as the Jewish people call it. Jesus entered there and conquered, bringing the souls of the just out with Him. In this way He was saved from death.

Our incorporation into the covenant is, as St. Paul says, an entrance into the death and resurrection of Jesus. We share in His victory over death and we participate in His divine life. We all have to die, but death has no power over us when we are in Christ and animated by His life. Jesus is the covenant spoken of by the Prophets; in us, the promises of God are fulfilled as we are drawn to Him on the Cross, in His resurrection, and into Heaven.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit