Biblical Readings may be found at Fifth Sunday of Lent | USCCB
There is a Young Adult Novel frequently assigned to Junior High School students in 7th and 8th grade throughout our country. We need to know what the new generation is reading and discussing, don’t you think? Thankfully, this book is truly noteworthy: Mildred Taylor’s ROLL of THUNDER HEAR MY CRY, the 1979 Newberry Award winning novel about her African American family in Mississippi during the great depression. What made me think of it? The Gospel’s reference to “thunder:”
“Then a voice came from heaven — The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.”
Like Jesus’ teaching, and Jesus’ miracles, Taylor’s novel ROLL OF THUNDER reveals deep truths about family, friendship, prejudice, fear, and redemption. In one episode, nine-year-old Cassie is repeatedly demeaned by a slightly older and far more privileged girl of European extractions, who treats her as if slavery were still in vogue. With threats and beatings, she forces Cassie to carry her books and run errands. One day, Cassie decides to take on the role of servant with fervor—not only to stave off the slaps but as part of a more noble goal to bring this girl back down to earth. In a sense, “blessed are the meek who call others to meekness.” And so, under the guise of a “change of heart,” Cassie eagerly volunteers to carrying the girl’s books without being asked. Tenderly she combs the girl’s hair, straightens the girl’s wrinkled clothes as they take the path to their respective schools—one for blacks, one for whites. As a result, Cassie becomes the girl’s confidante, learning about her girlfriends – who is loyal, who is deceitful, who she really likes and really cannot stand, her crush on a certain boy, and about her less-than-ideal life at home, including her fears concerning her father. Nevertheless, the girl’s arrogance and condescension did not abate. Having a confidante and a supportive companion was not enough for her to see the light of what true equality and true friendship was. Cassie had to put her original plan, “a great day of reckoning,” into action.
Fully armed with a treasure chest of knowledge of her adversary, and, with no one else in sight, Cassie pushes the girl to the ground, besmudging her smirks, soiling her selfish, self-satisfied soul. When her victim threatens to tell the teacher and all her friends, Cassie counters with the knowledge she has gained about her adversary, her conceits, and fantasies, and offers a realistic prediction of all what lies in store for the girl should these confidences come to light. Stunned into silence, the girl rises. With Cassie helping her, at last they stand together. The girls get along royally after that.
Sometimes it takes a push, a shove, to get the attention of the ignorant, the blind. The mighty must be overthrown and brought down to earth. Jesus surrendered to the Cross to hold a mirror up to the world: SEE HOW YOU HARM YOURSELVES AND ONE ANOTHER! SEE HOW YOU OFFEND GOD! We need thunder to see ourselves and fellow human beings as God sees us: sinners in constant need of redemption.
Society today offers innumerable signs that transformation is in order. Interestingly, John’s Gospel is known as THE BOOK OF SIGNS. Seven signs have preceded the conversation quoted in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ fellow Jews had witnessed:
- Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11 – “the first of the signs”
- Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
- Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15
- Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
- Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24
- Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7
- The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45
Yet, for all this, people preferred the ordinary to the extraordinary: the complacent to the dynamic; climbing, climbing, rising without the corrective dying and submission to deeper truths, beauty, integrity, charity, humility. So, of course, only some would believe in Jesus, although, interestingly, some outsiders, “Greeks,” came to believe not from what they themselves had seen, but from the faithful testimonies of Jewish witnesses. Together, this assembly of believing Jews and Greeks began to transform the world in Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
In John’s Gospel, “the ruler of this world” is Satan who builds walls amongst people, inflates egos and illusions so we think that “we are not like others,” and, worse, “better.” Often, we think we are “better” than others because we do not have the same set of problems others have. But, in truth, all problems are interrelated due to the principle of “cause and effect.” Jesus tears down walls, solidifies humanity through identification with suffering that invites investigation of what causes suffering. Saying that Jesus died because of our sins is far too simplistic. The passion insists we follow Jesus into the grave to specify and innumerate the sins that cause death even unto this very day. Dying with Jesus is what RAISES US UP! As the Gospel says, God spoke in Jesus and through Jesus, announcing God is glorified through the SON and through all who follow Him. His is the sound of thunder.
Today, we must ask, what kind of push do we need to see Jesus at work in us? To see Jesus in others? To honor others as ourselves? When push comes to shove, we can return to the “safe haven” in which we take care of ourselves and let others suffer-as-they-will. Or we can follow the One who said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
Jesus draws us to himself in this Eucharist, he draws us into compassion through broken bread tied to that same broken body we ponder on every Crucifix. He continually reminds us that he took on human suffering so that we would not isolate ourselves from other people’s sufferings, nor fail to address the roots, the causes of their fears, the deprivations, the indignities inflicted upon them. “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 literally allowed himself to be buried to show the transforming power of dying and rising. To what “OLD ways,” must we die for Jesus to awaken us to something new? MOREOVER, “Who are the people in our lives we need to invite into the Paschal Mystery?” Are we content to be the ones who strive to transform the world OR do we want company? Who among our friends and relatives need to be “brought down to earth?” Who needs to consider Jesus? Who needs to know dying and rising as the only way not only to enter eternal life but to have experiences of heaven on earth? Elsewhere Jesus said, “be cunning as serpents and gentle as doves.” Some people will respond to a simple invitation; others need a push. Jesus is like that little girl Cassie pushing us down to earth, so we approach every aspect of life rooted in our common humanity and dependence on God’s Holy Spirit. ROLL of THUNDER HEAR OUR CRY!