The _______ who _______.

5th Sunday of Lent (C)

A frightened and humiliated woman slumps to the ground, surrounded by her accusers. She shields her face and her body from their stares, covering herself with what little clothing she managed to gather before they dragged her through the streets to the Temple. She braces herself for the sting of the first, second, and then countless stones hurled at her. She expects to die: she is the woman caught in adultery.

But this story, which is the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is not about her; she is merely the pawn of her accusers, who care as much about her as they do the meaning of the Law which they profess to uphold. The story is not about her crime, although we are confronted with it; it’s not about forgiveness, although it appears to be given; and it’s not a lesson about judging others, although it can be inferred to be. The story of the woman caught in adultery is about the nature of God.

Jesus knew what the Scribes and Pharisees were up to. Yes, they hauled a woman whom they claimed was caught “in the very act” of adultery into the Temple, and thrust her before him as he sat teaching, and demanded that he acknowledge the punishment prescribed by the Law—death by stoning.  The irony of their challenge to Jesus was not lost on him. If they were so inclined to adhere to the letter of the law regarding adulterers, they would not have left the man behind. The law insists both parties be stoned to death [Leviticus 20:10]. That is not to say Jesus’ response would have been any different; his refusal to look at them, his silence and doodling in the sand would have sent the same message. Jesus declined to participate in their charade.

I think a more accurate name for this story might be, “the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees,” because it was they who were unfaithful through their continued attempts to trap Jesus, to sideline his teaching, to find reason to kill him; they were unfaithful to God and the meaning of God’s word, which they claimed to know so well. It is they who had been caught “in the very act” and their departure from the scene, one by one, confirmed their guilt.

But even they were not condemned by Jesus. They condemned themselves.

This Gospel is about Mercy, and Jesus shows it both to the accused and her accusers. He chooses not to stare at the Scribes and Pharisees, as they stared at the accused woman. He did not watch them as “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” [JN 8:9]. To the woman whose life was spared, whose name was “adulteress,” Jesus restored her humanity. No reprimand, no lecture, just the freedom to begin anew. Jesus said to her, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” [JN 8:11]

Over and over and over again, Scripture and our Christian faith encourage us to begin again. We may be lost, confused, living with the consequences of poor choices, but we are never trapped in that identity, “the one who…” We are more than sinners, more than the labels that describe our failings, and as much as it is our human nature to tag and box and prevent one another from moving forward, our faith tells us to keep going. This is what St. Paul, possibly the greatest convert in history, tells the Philippians, “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.” [PHIL 8:13-14]

Sin separates us from God. It’s a simple equation: remain close to God, avoid sin. Not so simple in practice, however. Like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who felt it was their right and duty to end a woman’s life for her sin, it has been the church itself, in the course of her history, whose lack of mercy served to box and label countless women and men. And when I say “the church” I am referring to you and me, not just our leaders. Look no further than today’s headlines showing “Christians” speaking and acting in ways that outstrip the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees. Our lack of mercy is so far from the truth of Jesus’ teaching—the truth of God’s nature. We who so readily slip into the robes of the Scribes and Pharisees and accuse others of the crimes we ourselves are guilty of miss the point entirely. Mercy is for everyone, including ourselves. Jesus asked the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” [JN 8:11].

The depth of God’s mercy is expressed most eloquently by the Prophet Isaiah when he says, “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 43:18-19a]. How refreshing these words are. Our Creator is not a God of the past, but of the present. The same God, who led the Israelites to freedom, is the one who continues to restore, liberate, and make a way for us today.  Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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In this Jubilee year of Mercy, and at all times we are reminded to mirror God’s mercy in all that we do. How do you think we are doing? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website includes a full menu of information, options and suggestions, prayers and studies, and ways for us to put our beliefs into action. Please visit http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/index.cfm.

The single truth that can transform the world: Third Sunday of Advent

 

3rd Sunday of Advent (C)

Do you realize how precious you are?

Before the collective eye rolling begins, I want to suggest that pondering this question is far more important than fretting about the state of the world. So let me ask again: do you realize how precious you are?

I’m serious, and so are the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent. And so is Pope Francis, who inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy this past week, on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.

So, do you realize how precious you are? Maybe? Sometimes? Not often? Me neither. But I should. I know it is true, every hair on my head [LK 12:7], yet I resist it. I resist saying it aloud. It feels awkward, and I know I’m not alone; I belong to a race of creatures who thrive on a diet of self-loathing and unworthiness.

Some might object, saying, if we were that precious why would God allow us to do harm to one another and to the earth? Really? Is the mess human beings have made of our world God’s fault? Every day, throughout the world, men and women inflict their feelings of imperfection, envy and greed onto others. Sometimes the damage is minute, a petty argument, a grudge. Other times it is harmful, violent, and as we know all too well, deadly. Would we do these things, or allow others to do them if we lived in a state of awareness of how deeply God loves us? Think about it. The condition of the world and our collective anxiety over it is a symptom of our lack of self-knowledge.

This idea of self-knowledge, and the lack thereof came to me earlier this week as I reflected on the words of the Prophet Zephaniah in the first of this weekend’s readings.

“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” [Zeph 3:14]

Meanwhile, I was berating myself for having picked up the axe of frustration from an online commentary the day before, swinging it in the direction of some point I desperately felt I needed to make. In doing so, I almost nicked the tender shoot I vowed to nurture in my heart this Advent season.

The words of the Prophet leapt off the page:

“The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” [Zeph 3:17-18]

God will sing joyfully, because of us? We’re not talking about God humming a happy tune here; the text says God is going to sing as one sings at festivals, for us. On stage, with a backup band, and a laser light show. (Okay, the text doesn’t say that.)

The word of God came to the Prophet Zephaniah as he witnessed the deplorable state of his nation; he foresaw the Day of the Lord looming and painted a bleak picture of the fate of Jerusalem’s enemies. However, the prophecy concludes with a joyful foretelling of the end of the Babylonian exile when the Judahites would return to Jerusalem; he promises renewal, forgiveness, salvation and an assurance that the Lord’s dwelling place would be amongst them. No more fear, the Lord is here!

Who is not comforted by the thought of an almighty Savior who not only rejoices in our reunion but who also dwells among us? If only we understood this is our reality.

Our creator is in love with us: powerfully, unabashedly, unconditionally, over-the-moon in love with us. All of us. Every single one of us.

How do we know this? Through grace-filled, revelatory interactions with others, through the unceasing and rejuvenating gifts of the earth, through the persistence of hope that breaks through despair and dwells in the depths of our hearts, and through our compulsion to work for a just and peaceful world.

If every human being—irrespective of belief— allowed their thoughts and actions to be guided by the knowledge of his or her belovedness, preciousness, singular, irreplaceable value, and exquisite human beauty, the resulting surge of love would extinguish all hatred from the world. It would be abundantly clear that all that matters in the world is already in our possession. Not only would each person’s self-knowledge be changed, but the entire world would be transformed with it.

With this understanding heeding the advice of John the Baptist in today’s gospel [LK 3:10-14] becomes as natural as breathing. We act from a place of self-knowledge when we recognize our abundance, share what we have with others, practice mercy, and turn away from deadly lies and destructive acts

In an interview with Italian Jubilee Publication ‘Credere’ published December 3, 2015, Pope Francis said, “The revolution of tenderness is what we have to cultivate today as the fruit of this Year of Mercy: God’s tenderness towards each one of us. Each one of us must say: “I am an unfortunate man, but God loves me thus, so I must also love others in the same way.”” Our attention to the needs of the world begins when we open our hearts to the reality that God loves us so.

In those fleeting moments of grace when we can grasp the depth of God’s love, God rejoices with us. Have you felt it? I am reminded of the chest-crushing gratitude I experienced as a young mother for the privilege of raising my daughters. Perhaps you have caught glimpses of it in your day-to-day activities: you witness an unexpected act of great generosity on your way to work; or, you perceive another person’s sorrow and silently lift a portion of it onto yourself; or,  in your classroom you observe a friendship forming between one lonely student and another; or, you witness a crime, injustice or searing poverty and know you are called to do something about it. You suddenly see that people are good, singularly unique, interconnected, and precious.

In as many ways as there are stars in the universe, these and other instances of profound human love, of selfless giving, of giving oneself over to a stranger without thought, of gracious receiving, or in offering mercy over judgement, our value as God’s precious and beloved ones is revealed to us. We are treasured more than the greatest pearl, than all the riches of the world. In those seconds of clarity, it feels as if the divine spark hidden in our depths is charged by the flame of the Holy One who burns for us always. It is the Oh Wow of divine sight.

St. Paul wrote to the Philippians “The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:5c-7]

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding compels us to acts of mercy. God’s precious creation should not live in fear, amidst violence and pollution. God’s precious creation should not inflict pain or seek to destroy others. A lack of love—an inability to love—signals a lack of self-knowledge. Knowledge of one’s belovedness is the condition for love.

God sings, “Do you realize how precious you are to me?”