Words on the Word

5. Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31.31-34: Deep within them I will plant my law.
Hebrew 5.7-9: Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering.
John 12.20-33: Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die.

When Fyodor Dostoyevsky published The Brothers Karamazov from 1879, he set as an epigraph a verse from the Gospel we have just read: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of white fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’

It was here, in Dostoyevsky, that I first read these words consciously. I was nineteen, not particularly well versed in Scripture. I had read the Gospels, but they had not yet formed my consciousness.

The forcefulness of Dostoyevsky’s quotation impressed me — first the majestic ‘Verily, verily’, then the paradoxical image of death unto life, at once fearful and attractive to one standing on life’s threshold, hungering to really live but also to give himself, his life, for a purpose that was worth it. The novel absorbed me. It was evidently a gigantic commentary on the Gospel saying. I began to understand what it means when the Fourth Evangelist further on remarks that the Word of God convicts the world ‘concerning sin and righteousness and judgment’ (cf. John 16.8). The image of the grain of wheat allows us to interpret the endeavours of Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in their variegated truth-seeking; it pronounces clear judgement on their perfidious father; and it reveals the grandeur of the book’s most luminous character, the Elder Zossima.

I remember I learnt the verse by heart. I remember I wondered what on earth its significance might be for my life.

At the time I thought of Jesus’s words as an absolute utterance void of context, like a wisdom saying on a calendar leaf. If we want to understand it, though, context matters. We find ourselves, John tells us, a week or so before Easter. Jesus has just performed the last, most radical of his ‘signs’: the raising of Lazarus, his friend who had been dead for four days. Jesus has been anointed by Mary. When Judas, ‘who was a thief’, called Mary careless — the nard was costly — he riposted: ‘Let her alone: against the day of my burying has she kept this.’ Then he entered Jerusalem, his eyes fixed on the Cross, whose mystery he had already expounded to the Twelve.

There is a note of ecstasy in his voice when, in response to the expectation of the Greeks wishing to ‘see’ him, he tells Philip and Andrew: ‘The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified’. His Passion and Death, shocking humanly speaking, represent for him the accomplishment of a sublime purpose.

When Jesus says about the grain of wheat that it must ‘fall into the ground and die’ it is against the background of concrete circumstances: the recently past death of Lazarus and his own future death.

With this in mind we can examine the saying more closely. Is it in fact correct to say that a grain of wheat must die in order to bear fruit?

Strictly speaking, no. A grain would truly die if it rotted. But a rotted grain bears no fruit. If the grain possesses fruitful potential, it is not dead but dormant. It is striking that science uses this image of a dormant seed. It makes us think of what Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Lazarus, our friend, has fallen asleep.’ They thought he spoke of ‘the rest of sleep’, but ‘Jesus had spoken of his death’. We hear an echo of the Lord’s words in the Roman Canon of the Mass, when we pray for those who ‘rest in the sleep of peace’. A dormant seed seems dead, but in reality carries life. Its life-giving potential can be remarkably long-lasting.

A few years ago, biologists in Israel got a date seed from Masada to sprout. The seed was dated to the first century AD. For 2000 it had waited patiently, apparently hopelessly to release the life-force it carried. Then the circumstances were right. The result is evident: a large, lovely, swaying date-palm.

The purpose of Jesus’s parable is not to glorify death. It is about letting us see death with fresh eyes. A state that for us spells extinction is revealed to be a state of expectation in view of change.

What happens to the grain when it falls into the ground? It loses its protecting shell, becoming vulnerable. Thereby it can absorb the earth’s nutrients. Eventually it starts to germinate. The nascent plant extends its roots towards life-giving sources while it pushes upwards towards light and warmth, to grow and bear fruit.

Herein, proclaims our Lord, we find an image of our life, and of death unto life. Naturally we fear death and vulnerable exposure. But it is by surrendering to the law imprinted on our being that we shall realise nature’s promise and awaken, after sleep, to supernatural life. Jesus, the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12.2) has shown us the way we must go. He bids us cast away fear. That is not all: he bids us follow him with alacrity.

In today’s collect we pray:

We pray, Lord our God, that by your help we may be found walking eagerly [alacriter] in that same charity by which your Son, loving the world, gave himself over to death.

If we live lovingly, in a love that alacritously gives all, we can with confidence die lovingly. ‘Love shall never pass’ (1 Corinthians 13.8). It bears life eternal. Even when it thrusts us into darkness, it mystically points towards elevation and light. The Easter mystery provides us with a master-key to human existence. Let us remember to use it where life seems locked, where death by way of illusion appears to have the last word. Amen.


A grain field in Ukraine.

Quæsumus, Domine Deus noster, ut in illa caritate, qua Filius tuus diligens mundum morti se tradidit, inveniamur ipsi, te opitulante, alacriter ambulantes. Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia sæcula sæculorum.