Last month, tens of thousands of people from all over the world tuned in to a webcam at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. A rare ‘moonflower’ was expected to bloom at any moment – and watchers were caught off guard when this happened not during the night, but in broad daylight.
In ancient Jerusalem, people from afar were also looking for a rare attraction – some Greeks arrived, pagans with an interest in Judaism, and declared “We want to see Jesus.” Maybe they were content to have him pointed out to them. Maybe they wanted an interview with him. Perhaps St John was even using “seeing” to mean “believing and understanding”. Whatever it was they wanted, their arrival was a sign: news of Jesus had passed beyond the Jewish nation and was beginning to attract the wider world. When pressed to perform his first miracle at Cana, Our Lord protested that his hour had not yet come; but now, with the nations watching, the hour was indeed at hand.
When a moonflower blossoms, it is a bittersweet occasion. The beautiful and fragrant bloom soon closes again and exudes a putrid odour. Yet this is necessary for the flower to achieve its purpose and give rise to new life. Jesus too needed to alert his supporters that the path ahead would lead through devastating loss before the new life he had promised could be attained, and he too chose an image from the natural world, an image which warned that what was to come was quite different from what had gone before – as different as an ear of wheat is from a tiny grain.
How do you enable a grain of wheat to burst into new life?
Well, first you have to wait for the right time. Winter wheat and spring wheat each have a right time for planting. Jesus waited until he was 30 to begin his public ministry.
Next, the seed needs to be watered. Jesus began his public ministry with baptism.
A seed cannot grow without oxygen. The Holy Spirit, whose name means ‘breath’, descended upon the newly-baptised Christ.
Some seeds need to pass through a trial before they germinate – a forest fire, a cloud of smoke, or rough treatment in the gizzard of some animal. In all cases the seed must break its outer casing and send a root earthwards and a shoot heavenwards. Jesus was roughly crucified, his body laid in the earth and his divine spirit released to enter heaven, after a visit to the holy souls waiting outside the gates.
A seed does not literally die when it is planted – a truly dead seed will not germinate at all – but it suffers the ‘death’ of losing its old identity. We could choose many other examples of creatures which have shed their old identity – caterpillars becoming butterflies, nymphs becoming dragonflies, tadpoles becoming frogs and toads; all point us to the need to grow and change. Yet each of these creatures changes according to the law written in its very being, the DNA which programmes every cell in its body.
“If anyone serves me, that person must follow me.”
Jesus invites us to follow him through death and resurrection. Everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus faces the trial of openness to change: if we are truly to be servants of Jesus, he tests us to see if we are willing to live by his standards even when this is far from convenient for us. This might be a challenge to turn away from some obvious sin – but it might be the challenge to stand up for Jesus and for his church in the face of public criticism.
This week, the Vatican issued a statement explaining why the Catholic Church is unable to offer blessings to same-sex couples. We may find ourselves suddenly challenged to justify why the Church is ‘homophobic’. We live in an age which is not interested in what ‘the Church teaches’ so we need to shift the conversation to ‘what Jesus said’. In fact, Our Lord said nothing directly about same-sex relationships, but did say it was God’s plan, made clear in Genesis, that a husband and wife should form a committed bond with one another. So perhaps the best response to a critic is that the Catholic Church exists to bless what Jesus blessed, and we are only trying to be faithful to Jesus; the same statement said that the Church will gladly bless individuals who seek to be faithful to God’s plan. What the church says to all human beings who experience same-sex attraction – as it does to all other people – is that “You are valued. You are loved by God. You are worthy of God’s blessing.” This response will not satisfy all our critics, but it may encourage them to take a fresh look at who Jesus was and what he taught. Our role is only to hold Jesus up in front of the world – he is the one who will ‘draw all people to himself’.
Recently a Zulu king died and was buried – but in the Zulu culture, they use a word to indicated that he was ‘planted’ in the ground and gathered unto his ancestors.
It is not enough that Jesus died and entered eternal life – I too must be planted. The divine law written in my heart must be allowed to shape my growth. It is not about who I am now, but who I am called to be. What part of my shell must be broken? My pride? My selfishness? My desire to conform to the world around me? My fear of change? After the water of baptism, after the infilling of the Holy Spirit, I must face up to the challenge to change.
Do you want to see Jesus? Do you want to follow him, whatever the cost? He is the one affirmed by the voice of the Father. And Christ himself cries out: “Come to me on the cross! Embrace the tree of life! Drink from the source of eternal salvation! But do this and your life will never be the same again.”
The day and the hour of our own blooming into eternal life is as mysterious as that of the moonflower. But the webcam team were ready. Don’t be caught out. Don’t delay. The day to give God permission to break your shell and begin your transformation is today. Our crosses are veiled because today is not the day to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. Today, we celebrate yours – but only if you are willing to change!