There was a popular saying in Ireland years ago: “McSwiney taught us how to die!”. It referred to Terence McSwiney, the Mayor of Cork, who died in prison in England in 1920, at the height of the Anglo-Irish war, after 78 days on hunger strike. His death made headlines all across the world. He is also remembered for saying: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will prevail.”
The Gospel of the fifth Sunday of Lent is also about a man who taught us how to die, though in a radically different sense. The man of the Gospel used the image of the wheat-grain that has to die if it is to yield a harvest and then he called us to lose our life in order to save it. What did he mean? Perhaps what we are witnessing in nature around us at the moment can help us to understand. We’re witnessing the renewal of nature. This nature that seemed to die some months ago is now returning to life and any day now there will be an explosion of colour and new life. It reminds us that the process which is death and dying is not something that happens merely at the very end of our human life – it’s something that happens all the time, it’s part of the human condition. One author wrote how life is like a pile of sand and every day you take a pinch of the sand and you throw it away – what’s the point in protecting a pile of sand? – “anyone who loves his life will lose it, anyone who hates his life in this world will save it for eternal life”.
In the Christian perspective of things, the ebb and flow of life is according to the rhythm of dying and rising. There’s more than one death in any lifetime.
As we consider the implications of that Christian perspective on life, we look to the mystery that gathers us here – the breaking of bread, bread that is itself the fruit of the fallen grain. Our story is the story of that bread – the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising that holds out hope for us and encourages us to let go, not to hold onto life with fear and bitterness and anger, but to let the wheat-grain fall and to recognise in the very heart of that death the call to new life.