The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Homily: 5th Sunday of Lent - Year C

Readings:  Is 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11

Have you ever been embarrassed alone? What I mean is: have you ever been embarrassed just thinking about something stupid you did in the past? I don’t know about you, but I certainly have. It’s especially then that I wish I had a more selective memory.

And yet our Christian faith encourages us to confess our sins, to put them behind us, and to look ahead, to look to the future. Of course, we’d all like to be able to do this, to forget the past, but it’s not so easy is it?

The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon
We even encounter this in the Old Testament. In our first reading, the Jews, exiles in Babylon, look back nostalgically to a more glorious past. They long for the kind of liberation their ancestors experienced when they were led out of Egypt. They long for the loving care God extended to them during their wanderings in the desert. They long for a return to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And they remember, too, it was their stubbornness, their disobedience, their sinfulness, that led them into exile. But God, speaking through Isaiah, chastises them:
"Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" [Is 43:18-19]
God wants them to trust in Him, to look forward not backward, to put their sins and their idolatry behind them and to serve the Living God. He wants them to realize that much better things await them in the future, that they remain His Chosen People, and that through them He will bring salvation to the entire world.

In today’s second reading we find St. Paul in a similar position. Paul had a past too, a past he could hardly forget, even if he wanted to. For before he was a Christian, Paul was a persecutor of Christians.
"I imprisoned many of the holy ones with the authorization I received from the chief priests," Paul tells us elsewhere,  and when they were to be put to death I cast my vote against them" [Acts 26:10]
Yes, Paul carried a heavy burden, but he also knew that God had given him incredible graces. And so he can declare:

One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Yet, despite Paul’s words, he couldn’t really forget the past. And he confirms this by ceaselessly telling stories: how God dealt with Israel over the centuries; what God did for the world through Christ; and, more personally, how God brought him, the least of the saints, to faith.

Yes, his past was important to Paul, and to forget it would be to forget what he once had been and what God had done for him. For Paul to forget his story was to forget his God.

The same is true for the woman caught in adultery. Despite Jesus’ “Neither do I condemn you” [Jn 8:11], neither she nor we can afford to forget her story. Not she, simply because it’s her story. And not we, because she’s really all of us, everyone from Adam until judgment day, all of us in need of a Savior, in need of forgiveness.

She’s the story of salvation, of sin and mercy, of sin committed and sin forgiven. And even though her sin is forgiven, she can never forget it, because it’s a part of her life.

Paul, a prisoner in Rome
Of course, for her, for Paul, for the exiled Israelites, for all of us, the danger lay in living in the past. For some, like the Israelites, it may involve basking in the glory days, yearning for them, and despairing of God’s saving act tomorrow. For Paul, languishing in a Roman prison as he writes to the Philippians, it would be easy to long for the time of miracles – for the road to Damascus and the days of amazing grace that followed.

The risk for the adulteress may well have been her sense of guilt. How can a God who prizes fidelity ever forgive my infidelity? How can my husband ever forgive me? How can I forgive myself? This Jesus, this strange, unique, compassionate man has said he won’t condemn me, that no one dares to condemn me. But how can I live with everyone knowing? How can I live with myself?

No, we shouldn’t live in the past. The Jewish exiles are called to focus on the “new thing” that God will raise in their midst. Paul must fix his eyes on the new life in Christ about which he constantly preached. And the woman must also begin a new life. She must not only go and sin no more, but also get to know and love the God who refused to condemn her. No, we can’t and shouldn’t live in the past.

A sense of nostalgia is a normal, human reaction to the constant change we encounter in the world, in our lives, in our Church. But to actually try to live in the past, to turn all of our attention to what once was…well that can be disastrous.

The point is, the Church is still God’s community of salvation. God still acts here, just as He still acted in Babylon. God acts through His People, wherever they are.

The other danger is to ignore the current challenges of life in favor of those glory days. And these challenges come in all flavors, don’t they? Whether it’s debilitating illness or forced retirement, old age or the nursing home, wayward children or alcoholism or family problems, or whatever. They can make us feel not only different, but diminished, and tempt us to push them away, to look back to happier, more stable times. And yet, as Christians we are called to confront the present and to look to the future.

Confront your sin, and go and sin no more, Jesus tells the woman and He tells us. As a Christian, I must keep growing until I die; for the goal of Christian striving, oneness with the living Christ, is never perfected here. No, for us the glory days are still ahead: life with Christ in glory.

And so, I must “strain forward” as Paul did, press on, keep dying with Christ so as to live more fully. For the true disciple of Jesus Christ, tomorrow is always better than yesterday, for each day is a new creation in the presence of a living God, a loving God.

And lastly, just like the woman in the Gospel, we must learn to accept Christ’s forgiveness. So many people don’t. They go through life, wallowing in guilt, afraid of hell, tormented by their pasts, unable to make peace with their brokenness and human frailty. This isn’t why God became man. This isn’t why He died that horrible death on that dark Friday afternoon.

"I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me," St. Paul insists, "and given himself up for me“ [Gal 2:20]. And that love is there, even in my sinfulness. So fix your eyes not on yesterday’s sin, but on today’s forgiveness and tomorrow’s hope. Repent, yes. But remember, the repentance that saves is not ceaseless self-scourging but fresh self-giving, a new birth of love.

Only two weeks of Lent are left. If you really want to rise with Christ, repeat the song He sings to you: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth” [Is 43:19]. Come to think of it, as Christians, we are the new thing. Why not spring forth?

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