I don’t know if you’ve noticed that all of our crosses and crucifixes are veiled in purple. They have been since Ash Wednesday. Next week on Palm Sunday, the color of the veils will change to red, and then on Good Friday, they’ll be veiled in black. You may wonder why we do it, especially when Lent is a season when we ought to be focusing on the cross. It’s an old tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, and probably has its roots in penitential practice. In some places, for example, there was a custom of placing a veil between the altar and the people during Lent. So you can think of it as a reminder, like the fact that we don’t sing or say alleluia during the liturgy, that we’re in a season of penitence, that we’re prevented, by our own weaknesses and sins, from deep relationship with Jesus Christ. But let’s be honest. The real reason we at Grace veil the cross is because “we’ve always done it that way.”
Whatever the reasons for doing it, the custom brings into sharp relief the Greeks’ question in today’s gospel, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The veiled crosses, most prominently, the veiled Christus Rex that hangs above the altar, are a jarring reminder of everything that prevents us from seeing Jesus. Like the Greeks, we wish to see Jesus.
Such a request seems quite reasonable, either in the first century or the twenty-first. If we’re asking we probably want to have evidence, direct experience of Jesus. The Greeks might have wanted the same thing. They’ve traveled to Jerusalem, they’ve heard about Jesus, and they want to see for themselves what he’s all about.
We are at another one of those moments of transition in the liturgical year. Lent is coming to an end and we are increasingly focused on what is to come—Holy Week with its powerful drama and experience. Whatever our personal disciplines and experiences this Lent may have been, our individual lives, our common life, even our worship have been overshadowed by the drama taking place in our streets and in our city. Whatever our personal need for self-reflection and penitence, as a city, as a nation, we have been called to deep reflection on who we are and who we are called to be. Too often, we blind ourselves to those realities; we refuse to see what is before our very eyes.
Today’s gospel reading comes at a transitional point in the gospel of John. Up to now, Jesus has engaged in a very public ministry, working signs or miracles, teaching, engaging in controversy with the religious leadership. This is his final appearance on the public stage before his crucifixion. From now on, Jesus will engage in conversation with his disciples, his closest companions—a conversation that will take place across five chapters and is set at the Last Supper. Today’s reading recapitulates some of the central themes of the gospel, it returns us to the very first chapter and provides the reader with markers that will help us understand what will happen in the rest of the book.
The passage begins with great symbolic power. Some Greeks, in Jerusalem for the festival (that is to say, for Passover) seek out Philip and tell him, “we wish to see Jesus.” Philip takes them to Andrew. The Greeks, probably here are meant either Greek-speaking Jews, or perhaps what other New Testament texts call “god-fearers”—non-Jews who are attracted to Judaism because of its monotheism and high ethical demands.
That they come to Philip who then goes to Andrew, is also significant. Both of those two disciples appear in the first chapter of John. They are among the first that Jesus calls to be his disciples. Andrew was one of the two who asked Jesus, “where are you staying?” To which Jesus responded, “Come and see.” What happened next? They went with Jesus, saw where he was staying (or abiding) and remained (abided) with him for the day.
“We wish to see Jesus.” Greeks ask this question of Philip. What did they really want? Did they want to talk to him? Ask him questions? Did they want to see him in action? Did they want to see him perform a miracle? Did they want to see for themselves what others had told them? We don’t know. And even more interesting, we don’t know if their request was granted. We don’t know if they saw Jesus. But we don’t know what happens to them. Having asked the question, they seem to leave the stage and are not heard from again. We don’t know their fate, but we do know that from the gospel writer’s perspective, this encounter is of great significance. At the very least, we are meant to consider that here at last, in this final public discourse, Jesus is addressing not only his closest companions and a larger Jewish audience, he is speaking to the whole world.
We don’t know if they saw Jesus; we don’t know if they heard Jesus. And what Jesus says when he hears of their request is not exactly clarifying (it rarely is in the Gospel of John). But if we reflect on Jesus’ words, we can begin to discern what the gospel writer wants us to understand about Jesus.
First, that word “glorification” again. I said last week that it’s an important word in John, important for making sense of John’s understanding of Jesus. Glorification, exaltation, refers to Jesus’ crucifixion (being lifted up) but it also refers to the whole event of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
Second, discipleship, or relationship—For John, following Jesus means being in relationship with Jesus. That is expressed in a number of ways, in the coming chapters, above all in “love”—In chapter 1 and elsewhere, that good old word “abiding” is also used—being with Jesus. Here, discipleship is expressed in terms similar to the other gospels, to save one’s life, one must lose it, service.
So it’s not enough to “see” Jesus. One must experience Jesus. More importantly, one must not let one’s expectations and assumptions preclude the possibility of a transformative encounter. In this passage, both sight and hearing are mentioned and it’s interesting to note that just as we don’t know whether the Greeks “saw” Jesus, we do know that the sense of hearing failed some of those in attendance. They could not understand the voice from heaven. We can also infer that they couldn’t understand what Jesus was saying.
In that respect, we’re probably as much like the crowd of bystanders as the Greeks who initially posed the question. We are prevented, by our own expectations and desires, our own sins as well as our blindness and deafness, from encountering Jesus. We want to experience Jesus on our own terms, in our own way. And when we do that, we put a protective veil between us that keeps us from seeing him, from hearing his voice.
But you know what? That’s not the end of the story. In spite of our efforts to the contrary, in spite of the barriers we put up, Jesus can break through and encounter us, not on our terms but on his. The relationship to which he calls us, the relationship he offers us, is a relationship of intimacy to lay bare our souls so they might be healed. It might sound scary, and I suppose on one level it is.
But there’s more. At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus proclaims that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. His life and death, his crucifixion and resurrection, are not judgment and condemnation. They are invitation and promise.
Jesus invites us, no Jesus pulls us toward him, offering us relationship and abundant life. When we strip the veils from our faces, when we allow him to heal our blindness and deafness, we encounter and experience him in the fullness of his grace and taste the life he would have us live. As we approach Holy Week, the cross and the tomb, may we prepare ourselves to know Jesus more fully, to abide with him. May we see him face to face and help others to see him, too.