The Seed Must Die to Yield a Harvest

SCRIPTURES & ART: A reflection on the readings for Year B of the Fifth Sunday of Lent

“The Parable of the Sower,” Greek Manuscript, 1594
“The Parable of the Sower,” Greek Manuscript, 1594 (photo: Public Domain)

This is the last week of my “catch-up” on Scriptures and Art. As I’ve pointed out, there are two possible readings this year for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent. That is because while the Church provides a set of readings for each Sunday in the three-year Sunday Gospel cycle, it also allows the use of the readings for Year A — the “scrutiny” readings connected with preparing catechumens for Baptism — in any year by any parish during these three weeks.

If your parish is using the scrutiny reading, the Gospel will be about the raising of Lazarus. (Here’s a commentary.) If your parish is following Year B’s cycle of readings, it will be about Jesus speaking of how the grain of wheat must fall and die to produce a harvest.

Yes, America, Jesus did beat out Benjamin Franklin in commenting on the inevitability of death and taxes. Yet, in a very singular way, death was the trajectory of Jesus’ life. Scripture makes that clear. Paul’s great hymn of Jesus’ self-emptying (Philippians 2:6-11), Jesus’ kenosis, makes clear: He took “human form” (vv. 7-8a), i.e., became man, to become “obedient unto death — even death on a cross” (v. 8b). The author of Hebrews makes the same point: “We … see Jesus ‘crowned with glory and honor’ because he suffered death, he who ‘for a little while’ was made ‘lower than the angels’ that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9). Already at his birth, one of the Magi gifts the Christ Child with myrrh: a spice used for burial, a symbol of mortality, something Nicodemus will again bring on Good Friday to bury Jesus. 

Jesus repeatedly points to his Passion and Death as a prerequisite to his Resurrection. Two weeks ago, when the Gospel recounted his cleansing of the Temple, he spoke of the destruction of “this temple,” the temple of his Body. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus told Nicodemus that “the Son of Man must be lifted up” and, later in John’s Gospel, makes clear “when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12:32, a verse just preceding today’s Gospel and after the raising of Lazarus).

When Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from his path, Jesus calls him a “Satan” trying to tempt him (Matthew 16:23). When Jesus tells the Apostles they will return to Judea (to raise Lazarus) — a place where Jesus was almost stoned — Thomas half-sarcastically remarks, “let us go, that we may die with him” (11:16 — just wait, Thomas, your day will come). In Mark, Jesus frequently is telling his Apostles to keep silent about miracles he performs — things you would think should be given broad publicity — because those “signs” could be misinterpreted, inasmuch as Jewish expectations did not include a suffering Messiah or one who would be killed. Premature revelation of his true identity before his Passion and Death could actually be a “stumbling block” that encumbers Jesus’ messiahship with human expectations.

Scripture makes clear that Jesus’ Passion and Death were not contingent outcomes that, under different historical circumstances, he might have averted. They were the Divine Plan, starting from creation (Genesis 3:15). It’s not that God is bloodthirsty: Jesus’ Passion and Death were necessary because suffering and death are the unavoidable consequences of sin. It’s not that God “punished” Adam by threatening him with death when he could have attached any other penalty to sin. No — God at least takes seriously both the inherent reality of the being he created and the non-being that sin represents. To sin is to cut oneself off from God, who is our life — and, since there “is no other God besides me” — there is nowhere else that man can find life. To cut oneself off from God unavoidably is to choose death. 

So every man has to die: it is the consequence of sin, and all men are sinners. But Jesus is without sin. For him death is not necessity but choice: it was by going through man’s death as an innocent victim — as one who suffered out of love for us the abandonment he did not deserve — that Jesus (in the words of the Preface) “even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation.” That is why, in less than two weeks, we will sing at the Easter Vigil of the felix culpa, the “happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” Such was the Divine Plan of love from eternity.

That doesn’t make death any less real. There is still no way to Easter except by going through Good Friday. The Church underscores that in insisting that the Paschal Triduum — from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday nights — is one indivisible feast.

It’s also why death is inevitable for every man. As the sardonic comment puts it, “None of us get out of this life alive.” Indeed — none of us can get to Life except through death. Each of us has his own personal Good Friday penciled into God’s calendar. And, with all due respect to those who “believe the science,” it isn’t going to get us out of that one. “It is appointed for man once to die …” (Hebrews 9:27). 

So, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, the grain of seed has to die, not just to perish but to move on and yield a harvest. The seed that wants to stay a seed in fact seeks arrested development. The seed must fall into the ground and perish. The question is what kind of ground. Ground that is conducive or non-conducive to bringing forth new life? Ground that is hard and rocky, that leaves the dying seed dead? Ground that is overrun by weeds, choking off the nascent life? Ground that is rocky or clay, that does not enable the seed to put down solid roots? Or ground that is rich, nutritious, life-supporting, that yields a bountiful harvest?

Today’s Gospel is illustrated in this Greek manuscript that comes from around 1600. Admitting my ignorance of Eastern religious art, I will not attempt a commentary beyond what is apparent. 

I chose this illustration because it can combine the historical event — some Greeks want to meet Jesus and so sought out Philip and Andrew to get them in — with the teaching about the seed needing to undergo its passion, to die. Separating the two is hard: you wind up with a nondescript group of people wanting something from Jesus and — in modern Western sacred art — some poster-like kitsch of a seedling, usually with sayings on it. This manuscript illustration appeals because it is at least susceptible to being seen as bringing those two concepts together.

In the space above, we see Jesus with his Apostles. This illustration probably serves to illustrate the parable of the sower and the fate of his seeds. The group listening to Jesus are his apostles, all carrying halos: there are 11 or 12 of them and I doubt Philip and Andrew are hiding the inquisitive Greeks in the crowd. Jesus speaks above; the parable-in-action appears below. The sower is already sowing the seed that will die to live. The environment, other than providing a hillock to put Jesus on top and the sower on the bottom, does not necessarily look promising. All the issues are there: hungry birds, rocky soil, brambles. But there also is good soil, maybe not immediately visible but able to sustain life: look at the vigorous plant in the middle of the scene (or the bright green lichens that are staying alive between segments of a sidewalk). The “path,” besides corresponding to the details of the parable of the sower, also is a visual link, a bridge that connects the parable scene with Jesus teaching about it above.