A MATTER OF THE HEART – Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

March 17, 2024

Revised Common Lectionary
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33


Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15 (12a)
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33

The heart has long been celebrated by poets and songwriters as the seat of love and emotions. When we are overcome with feelings of joy, sadness, or pain, we often point to our heart, saying that it is full, hurting, or broken. To this day the heart remains a powerful symbol of our innermost longings and deepest attachments.

The human heart figures prominently in today’s reading from Jeremiah. Much of Jeremiah’s preaching had been directed at a people whose infidelity had led to destruction and exile. Jerusalem had been devastated, the holy places defiled, the Temple leveled, the leading citizens taken into exile, and the king led away in chains.

To this people, downhearted and disillusioned, the prophet proclaimed that God would establish a new covenant, radically different from the one Israel had broken through its infidelity. Today’s passage promises a future in which God’s new covenant will be expressed not externally, through statutes and decrees, but rather within each person. There will be no need even to teach God’s law, because it will be inscribed in the heart.

This new covenant is less a matter of observance than of the heart. In the Sinai covenant, God’s law had been written on tablets of stone. Now, in spite of the people’s repeated failures with resulting disastrous consequences, God announces, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).

Psalm 51, a prayer for mercy which follows today’s reading from Jeremiah, likewise focuses on change from within: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51:10). Living by God’s covenant is not merely a matter of observing rules; it requires openness to total transformation of our hearts. We pray to be remade in the image of the One whose name is Love.

The new covenant is a relationship of total giving on both sides—the Holy One lavishly pouring out love for us, and we surrendering our entire selves in response. Jews are reminded of this relationship several times each day as they recite the Shema Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Dt 6:4-5).

As the Christian community journeys through Lent with candidates for Easter baptism, we remember the new covenant that God announced through Jeremiah. In the water the Holy One bids us to let go of our old ways so that God may write the law of love in our hearts. We die and rise with Christ so that our entire self—heart, mind, and spirit—may be transformed in the image of the One who poured out his life for love of others.

A Hymn for Today: “Spirit, open my heart”

This hymn by Ruth Duck, FHS, is based on today’s reading from Jeremiah and on two passages in Ezekiel, all focused on the human heart. The singing community prays for an openness to life in all its dimensions and for a heart to love as God loves. Listen here to an arrangement of this hymn by Alfred V. Fedak.

Spirit, open my heart
to the joy and pain of living.
As you love, may I love,
in receiving and in giving;
Spirit, open my heart.

God, replace my stony heart
with a heart that’s kind and tender.
All my coldness and fear
to your grace I now surrender. Refrain

Write your love upon my heart
as my law, my goal, my story.
In each thought, word, and deed,
may my living bring you glory. Refrain

May I weep with those who weep,
share the joy of friend and neighbor.
As I live from day to day,
love will be my finest labor. Refrain

Text: Ruth Duck, b. 1947. © The Pilgrim Press. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Meu Coracao/My Heart, photograph, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 2007

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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