The Stadium Theatre at Monument Square in Woonsocket has been gloriously refurbished to its 1920’s grandeur. The scene of many “double features” from my youth is now the venue for organ concerts, community college plays, and touring musical comedies.
The refreshed gilt, restored stenciling and polished brass place the Stadium theatre alongside the former St. Anne Church as testimonials to Woonsocket’s former and, alas, much faded glory. In spite of the splendid workmanship evident in Woonsocket’s last remaining theatre, the Stadium’s posters are unlikely to list Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber on their billing. Instead, the Stadium lately has been featuring so-called tributes to various stars such as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles. Entertainment is thus provided not by the big name celebrities themselves but by a talented performer a step or two or three removed from the real thing. These shows present a respectable facsimile of the genuine article.
In this coming Sunday’s Lenten Gospel, some Greeks approach the disciples of Jesus and earnestly request an interview with the celebrated Jesus Christ. Jesus was no facsimile; he was the real thing. So a party of Greeks understandably wants to meet this celebrated preacher and renowned miracle worker. “Sir, we would see Jesus,” these foreigners ask of Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus was indeed the talk of the town. People were hanging on his every word. There was even a spontaneous effort to make Jesus a king! The Greeks would be thrilled to shake his hand and take home a memorable phrase or two from his eloquent lips. Jesus, peculiarly and uncharacteristically, almost seems to ignore his intent fans. Without any acknowledgment of his Hellenistic fans, Jesus seems to stare off into space and commence an exposition on the nature of the Christian life.
Jesus instructs his audience then and would repeat the same to an audience now: “Amen, amen, I say to you, 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. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Jesus understands the Christian life to consist in a resistance to mankind’s fallen nature, in a refusal to acquiesce to man’s lower tendencies, in a determination to repel the inclinations of the flesh. This process is the dying to self that spiritual directors from St. Anthony of the Desert through St. Ignatius Loyola and certainly including Thomas Merton have insisted is the necessary groundwork for Christian maturity. The Christian must die to the lower impulses of the flesh, to the inordinate satisfaction afforded by material goods and to the pride that is really vanity. Those who love the world and the flesh will lose out on a truer knowledge of themselves. Conversely, those who reject the excesses of the world and the flesh will discover their true inner worth, their authentic self, their genuine sonship before God. Jesus speaks of the seed that seemingly dies, buried beneath the earth’s smothering dirt, only to sprout, to blossom and to bear fruit. He sees the Christian similarly dying to the lesser attractions of this world, and then rising to a nobler life of faith, discipline, charity and zeal. Death to self and life for God is the realistic Christian motto for any generation.
Jesus prefaces his instruction on the need for regular self-denial and obedient self-discipline by citing this process as the true source of his own celebrity status. Jesus was indeed a great preacher. Thousands listened to his message. Jesus was certainly a great healer. Christ and his disciples were literally pestered by clients seeking cures. But Jesus’ great claim to fame was his relentless dying to any merely human inclinations and his unyielding fidelity to the will of his Father, the call of his higher, divine nature. Jesus spoke courageously and ominously, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus knew that death to self and life for God was his glory and the glory of anyone who would follow him. So Jesus did his Greek friends a favor. He did not just shake their hand or make some polite inquiries. Instead he revealed to them the secret of the Christian life, the secret of his own glory, the true nature of his own celebrity status. Mortification of the flesh (in all its manifestations) and exaltation of the spirit (especially through prayerful communion with God) was the challenge given to Jesus and the challenge given to every believer.