When we read Jeremiah’s prophecy, we are astounded that God would promise so much to people who were so undeserving. Generations of the Chosen People had sought God’s favor, and had offered countless sacrifices, but they had also repeatedly disobeyed him. Despite their long history of unfaithfulness, in spite of their readiness to break their covenant, God offers them a “new covenant”: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts.” This is an extraordinary promise, that the law of God will no longer be carved in stone or written on parchment, but written on our hearts. It is a promise of a new heart, a heart with the capacity to know and follow the word of God, not because obedience is demanded of us from outside, but because we ourselves choose what God chooses, because our hearts are like his heart. This is the fruit that we desire to reap from our journey through Lent.
The prophecy has some other amazing elements: “No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” Two essential aspects of living with a new heart are knowing the Lord and being forgiven of our sin. This promise has been fulfilled through the coming of Jesus. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, for our sake Christ Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” – that is, he inserted his obedience into our human family which was trapped in disobedience. And “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” When we obey the Lord in faith, we receive – our new hearts receive – the gift of eternal salvation. We do not have to earn salvation by obedience to the law, which we could never do anyway; and we do not have to rely only on the word of an ancient prophecy; what was prophesied has been poured into our hearts.
Jesus not only tells us about the way of salvation, he shows us. We are not left to figure it out for ourselves. In his words to his Apostles Philip and Andrew, he describes his mission in terms of a “grain of wheat.” It is a simple yet profound symbol of the whole paschal mystery: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus is speaking about himself; he is the “grain of wheat” that will die and produce much fruit. The “fruit” is all of us who receive the gift of salvation.
One grain of wheat produces many more grains of wheat. Jesus’ sacrificial death produces the harvest of many people who are willing to join him in the process of dying and rising. So he says: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.” We are his servants, so we must follow him in the gift of ourselves, the gift of love from the heart, which is the sacrifice of our very selves.
This is the process we have been pursuing throughout these weeks of Lent, by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We have been striving to die with Christ Jesus in order to live with him forever. We know that if we “die” – if we turn away from sin, if we empty ourselves of the attachments and consolations that can become our idols – we can more fully rely on Jesus and be filled with his light, wisdom and strength.
It is never an easy matter. Our flesh shrinks from the difficulties that lie ahead, the prospect of rejection, humiliation and suffering. Jesus himself, in his human nature, was deeply troubled at the prospect of his Passion. During his agony in the garden, he told his closest friends, “My soul is sorrowful even to death” (Mt 26:38). In today’s Gospel he admits, “I am troubled now.” Being troubled, however, did not deter him from pursuing the will of the Father with his whole heart. We ponder Jesus’ perfect fidelity in the midst of suffering, we learn from his example, and we rely on his victory. Though we must also make every effort, the whole process of our transformation depends entirely on the Lord. He is the one who makes us new. So we pray in the words of the Psalm: “Create a clean heart in me, O God!”
In what ways am I unfaithful to the Lord? Do I choose what God chooses for me? How can I allow the Lord to create a clean heart in me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.