After the first two Sundays of Lent, where the Church celebrates two events of notable importance, the desert experience of Jesus and the Transfiguration on the mount, the Cycle of Readings goes into three distinct theological directions. The A Cycle, with all three Gospel texts from St. John, highlights the embrace of faith in the person of Jesus as the life-giving One who is to come. These Johanine readings are elongated progressions of faith: the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. In the A Cycle John replaces the narrative of St. Matthew during this portion of Lent, and these readings in A have become so identified with the catechumenate that many parishes use the A cycle readings exclusively every year during weeks three, four, and five. This is permissible under Church law.
In the B cycle, our current year, John replaces Mark in the later Sundays of Lent. This is a common feature in Year B, as Mark’s is the shortest Gospel, and John is not assigned to a particular year. John will make another appearance this summer during a six week span, when John 6 is read at Mass, the so-called “breads narrative” of the Eucharist. John’s Gospel is read exclusively at a number of major Church feasts, including Holy Thursday and Good Friday as an annual event.
While Mark’s Gospel disappears for a time until his Passion is read on Palm Sunday, his themes do not. We talked on Sunday of Mark’s description of the Transfiguration and the difficulties of the prophets/disciples in winning the glory of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. On the Third Sunday of Lent John’s Gospel (John 2:13-25) depicts the multiple prophetic struggles, including Jesus’ violent expulsion of vendors from the temple precinct, a hostile exchange with Jews who question his authority, and John’s observation that regarding the crowds who followed him, “For his part, Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all.” Mark, you may recall, noted that Jewish authorities began plotting Jesus’ death as early as 3:6. John has accounted this deadly hostility even sooner, in Chapter 2.
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent John recounts the nighttime discussion of Jesus with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader with a flicker of interest in his message. (John’s practice of positioning the sun as a barometer of faith is on display here: Nicodemus comes “at night” while the Samaritan woman meets Jesus at high noon.) In John 3:14-21 Jesus explains to Nicodemus that “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (that is, crucified) that all may have life in him. But John goes on in this passage with a critical elaboration. In Mark, Jesus and John the Baptist had always spoken of Judgment in the immediate future. But John, throughout his Gospel, stresses that the “future is now.” As John quotes Jesus, “Whoever believes in him avoids condemnation.” This is present tense, not future. Determination of eternal destiny does not await a future coming, but is based upon an existential decision in this moment as to place faith in the words of Jesus and the Father who sent him.
John continues the theme of urgency in the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent (John 12:20-33). Here we have the appearance of inquisitive Greeks, apparently seeking wisdom from Jesus. Jesus does not acknowledge their ethnicity but apparently includes them in his universal teaching to follow. Again, with a nod to Mark, John reports Jesus’ teaching that the grain of wheat (Jesus? the true disciple? both?) must die if it is to bring forth much fruit. Jesus continues to speak, present tense, about the dangers of loving one’s life too much to the point of losing it. “If anyone would serve me, let him follow me.” Like Mark, John notes the anguish of discipleship. “My soul is troubled now, yet what should I say—Father, save me from this hour?” After a divine voice affirms him from the sky, Jesus returns to the urgency of the moment: “Now has judgment come upon this world, now will this world’s prince be driven out…” Despite the years between their composition—four decades by some account—Mark and John show a remarkable kinship of thought—except that John has moved the hour hand much closer to midnight for the moment of decision.