The Gospel reading for March 22 (Jn. 12:20-33) is as fascinating as it is puzzling. It starts off with a rather unsurprising event. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and there are some Greeks, likely proselytes, who want to speak with him. The Greeks reach out to Philip, who reaches out to Andrew, and the two together tell Jesus that some Greeks want to talk to Him.
Jesus’ response, however, is anything but ordinary. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves (φιλῶν) his life will lose it, and he who hates (μισῶν) his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (Jn. 12:23-26). The discourse continues and, if there was a response to the initial inquiry concerning the Greeks, we are not told.
What the Christ has to say about loving and hating life is a bit puzzling. Is not life, after all, a gift from God? Why then, is it that God is telling us to hate this life? A turn to the Greek
complicates matters even further. The word used for ‘love’ signifies friendship, which is a strange choice. Someone who loves his life—that is, this earthly life—in this way, is practically
considering it equal to himself, which is an inaccurate way to look at this life. To that effect, Our Lord says elsewhere, “He who wants to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life
for my sake shall find it” (Mt. 16: 25).
We might further wonder what it means to make one’s earthy life one’s equal. It is an inherently misplaced relation. Abraham is called ‘friend of God’ in the Bible, and the dedications of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts are to Theophilos, a name which is likely not a proper designator, but which picks out the reader as ‘friend of God.’ In John 15, Jesus calls His Apostles—and by extension us—no longer servants, but friends. Indeed, more than friends, for St. Paul tells us that God invites us to kinship with Him and Our Savior guides us to call the Father our Father, but one who cannot enter into a covenant of friendship with God cannot enter into one of kinship either. Thus, those who love this life, have made an idol out of it and placed it on God’s pedestal.
Christ has just mentioned that, like the grain of wheat, He must fall into the earth and die. Now He tells us, “Where I am there will my servant be also.” In John 15 He speaks more explicitly, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn. 15:20). A person who has made his life his friend, then, is not ready to make this commitment, as is the case with the rich young man who cannot give up his wealth for the Kingdom.
With this in mind, we can better understand what it means to hate life in this context. Most assuredly, Christ is not saying that the only good Christian is a suicidal Christian; neither is He calling for hatred or abuse of the body. Instead, the relationship of hatred to life should be understood as being in opposition to the previous relationship. Thus, the person who ‘hates’ his life is one who regards it as lower than himself, i.e. the person who knows that there are times when grasping at his life would be more damaging than laying it down. This person makes God and the work of the Kingdom first in priority and regards his own hopes and dreams as secondary. The irony, of course, is that this is the only way in which one can have their hopes and dreams realized, because, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons reminds us, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” It is only through complete surrender to the One in Whom, “we live and more and have our being” (Acts 17: 28), that our life is fully actualized, our hopes are fulfilled, and our joy is made complete.