Fifth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: Ezek 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45
“Lazarus, come forth!” It was a shocking demand. The dead cannot hear, can they? Everyone held their breath, waiting to see what would happen. Necks were straining so that eyes could see the open cave. Men and women stood paralyzed, as if time had stopped. Suddenly, a shrouded figure appeared in the gaping mouth of the tomb. From the land of the living a great gasp rose into the air. The dead man stood motionless while the living staggered backwards in shock. They saw the shroud of death and they were afraid. Is it a ghost? What is under that shroud? Jesus saw the hidden life within the shroud so he said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Surprisingly, the Gospel is silent about the joy that must have erupted after the crowd got over their initial shock. Instead, St. John writes, from that day forward the chief priests and Pharisees planned to kill Jesus. The gift of life to Lazarus was met with a sentence of death for Jesus.
“Lazarus, come forth!” It was a very loud cry. Never before had Jesus raised his voice against death with such open defiance. Jesus had said, “The hour is coming when all who are in tombs will hear [my] voice and will come forth…” (Jn 5:28-29). Jesus raised Lazarus to show that is a promise he can and will fulfill.
“Lazarus, come forth!” It was the call of a Shepherd to one of his own. “I am the Good Shepherd, I know mine and mine know me … My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” This was not yet the hour for the general resurrection on the last day. But the Good Shepherd can give life whenever he wills, to whomever he wills because he is Life. He gave us human life at conception in our mother’s womb. He gave us his divine life at baptism. And he will give our dry bones new flesh like that of a little child when he calls us by name to come forth. Jesus was deeply troubled, even angry at the scourge of death. We suffer when a loved one dies, someone close to us like Br. Tobias. But the Good Shepherd who loves all he has created weeps at every death because “God does not delight in the death of the living” (Wis 1:13). And by raising Lazarus Jesus foreshadows our own resurrection when God “… will wipe away every tear from our eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and four hours later sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Survivors spoke of a woman who left the relative safety of the upper decks to return to her cabin. She hurried along the corridors already tilting at a dangerous angle. She crossed the gambling room where money and costly gems littered the floor. Reaching her stateroom she saw her own treasures waiting to be picked up. But she paid no heed to them. Instead she took as many oranges as she could hold and hurried back to the life boats. An hour earlier it would have seemed incredible to her that she could have preferred oranges to her own diamonds, but Death boarded the Titanic and all values were transformed. Precious things became worthless, and common things became precious. Oranges became more important than diamonds. Today the coronavirus has boarded our spaceship, and toilet paper has become more important than stocks and bonds. But what is really important? Is it not to be a friend of Jesus, like Lazarus?
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11
At one point, during our recent retreat with Bishop Daniel Flores, he drew a striking contrast between two very different views of the world. In one, we imagine life is governed by the law of the survival of the fittest. As master of my own destiny, I have only myself to rely on and so I must be strong, determined, and ruthless in the face of opposition. You oppose me; you are my enemy, and I will destroy you before you can destroy me.
By contrast, Christianity introduces a vision of human life in which you and everything around you is seen as a manifestation of God’s grace. Life is the drama of being over taken by God’s grace shaping events, joyful and terrible events, embraced in faith that, as we say on Holy Saturday, love is the deepest meaning of it all. This Christian view of life, the bishop suggested, is embodied in our Blessed Mother, or rather in the sequence of mysteries that made up her life: Mary, immaculately conceived, Mary at her Annunciation; at Bethlehem the night Christ was born, Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary at Pentecost anointed and consoled by the Holy Spirit, Mary gloriously assumed into heaven, and finally, at this point, the bishop extended his hand out in front of him and looking upward into the distance, concluded: “Mary – the woman clothed with the sun.”
This exhortation made quite an impression on me and led me to reflect on how, the Christian view of the world profoundly informs our understanding of the dignity of the human person. The woman caught in adultery in this morning’s gospel, is in very serious trouble. In the high stakes game of the survival of the fittest she has been identified as notoriously unfit. She is a public sinner, a loser in this game, and it is dangerous, especially for a woman, to lose this game. You lose this game, you die. In the game of the survival of the fittest, adultery is not a sin that can be repented and forgiven, it is a crime, and is correlated with certain penalties to be exacted. Losers in this game have no hope, and no future.
Into this desolate moral landscape, Jesus appears, and to stunned observers, introduces a radically different view of life and the human person. Jesus is introducing a view of the world overtaken by grace. In the Christian world view, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is the revelation of a deeper truth; the truth that all who are baptized in Christ, as well as all who are united to Christ by love, are made clean in anticipation of the merits of Christ. It is for this reason, that Jesus will not ally himself with the men who accuse the woman caught in adultery, but says instead: “Let that man among you who has never sinned be the first to cast a stone at her. Go ahead. Let us have a look at this strong man; this survivor of the fittest. Show us this champion. Let everyone present here watch a sinless man pick up a rock and throw it at a woman” – words that evidently paralyzed every man within ear shot of Jesus’ voice.
Brothers and sisters, I pray that, in the days remaining in this Lenten Season, every person here, who is each in our own way an “adulterer” before God, will be able to stand in the place of the woman caught in adultery and hear the words Jesus addresses to her which reveal her to be a woman full of grace. May each baptized person here know him or herself as a person who, in anticipation of the merits of Christ, is filled with grace. May this Lent be the occasion for a very personal encounter with Christ who did not come into the world as the accuser, but to offer this blessed assurance to each of us: “I do not condemn you. Now go – and do not sin.”
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: Ezek 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45
“Lazarus, come forth!” It was a shocking moment. The dead cannot hear, can they? Everyone held their breath, waiting to see what would happen. Necks were straining so that eyes could see the open tomb. Men and women stood paralyzed, as if time had stopped. Suddenly, a shrouded figure appeared in the gaping mouth of the cave. From the land of the living a great gasp rose into the air. The dead man stood motionless while the living staggered backwards in shock. Is it a ghost? They saw the shroud of death and they were afraid.
Surprisingly, the Gospel is silent about the joy that must have erupted after the crowd got over their initial shock. Instead, St. John writes, from that day forward the chief priests and Pharisees planned to kill Jesus. The gift of life to Lazarus was met with a sentence of death for Jesus.
“Lazarus, come forth!” It was a very loud cry. Never before had Jesus raised his voice against death with such open defiance. Jesus had said, “The hour is coming when all who are in tombs will hear [my] voice and will come forth…” (Jn 5:28-29). Jesus raised Lazarus to show it is a promise he can and will fulfill.
A young, newly ordained priest was called to a hospital emergency room. Four teenagers from his parish were in a car accident. An officer took the new priest aside and said, “None of the kids survived. Would you please tell their parents?”The young priest was stunned, he was hardly more than a teenager himself. His face turned pale, his heart started racing. Passing through the double doors into the waiting room, he saw the anxious faces of parents turn to him. His voice breaking, all he could say were two words, “They’re gone.”Parents collapsed into chairs and onto the floor in tears. Their young priest doubled over in pain and began sobbing with them. He couldn’t say anything, he just wept. He felt like such a failure because he had no words of consolation. A few days later, at the wake, people looked at him, some pointed. He wanted to run away in shame. But after the service, as he prepared to slip away, several of the parents stopped him.“Father,” they said, “would you offer the funeral Mass?”Confused, he asked why they wanted him. A mother replied, “Because when you wept with us you showed that God was weeping with us, too.”1
Jesus wept to show that “God does not delight in the death of the living”(Wis 1:13). And Jesus raised Lazarus to foreshadow our own resurrection at the end of time when God “… will wipe away every tear from our eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away”(Rev. 21:4).
Our Br. Kevin has died and we will bury him tomorrow. He had memorized a list of all the monks who died since he joined New Melleray in 1959, forty-seven of them. Every day he prayed for each one of them by name, as he did for his family and friends. Now that the former things have passed away for him, I believe that he will be praying for each one of us by name until we also hear the Good Shepherd’s voice and enter eternal life.
1. Basil Pennington, Living in the Question, p. 116f.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33]
“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.”
One of the things that attracted me to NM was the company of people who find that verse meaningful; who find that way of dying to be a call to a way of life. Most of us, when we were younger or just beginning to consider monastic life, were strongly drawn to this idea of making a total gift of self the way Christ did. What we may not have realized when we entered monastic life was that when the grain of wheat—which is Christ—falls into the ground, it does nothing. Things are done to it. It has within it everything it is ever going to be.
In the passion account of Mark that we will hear next Sunday, Jesus is “handed over.” From the moment he is handed over in the garden until his death He is the subject, the do-er, of only nine verbs out of about 100 verses. From that moment on he is most often the object of the verbs; He is no longer the do-er; He is now the one “done-to.” That's what it's like to be a scapegoat.
Early Christians, when asked what the significance of Jesus Christ to them was, did not say, “He taught” or “He healed.” They said, “He was handed over.” And He consented to being handed over.
Being handed over is where our vocation, our call to imitate Christ, begins. In monastic life one is handed over when he enters the monastery and he consents to this on the day of profession. In married life one is handed over—each to the other—and it happens on the wedding day. It is consented on the wedding night.
It is because of this unforeseen aspect, these “things that happen to” a person, that one makes a formal commitment to a vocation by vows. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus cried loudly to the Father to be spared from His passion. As human He learned from experience what it costs to obey from the heart when the obedience is going to be painful.
Yet, the word “passion” does not mean exclusively or even primarily “pain.”
It means dependence, exposure, waiting, undergoing, and being the object of what is done. It means passivity. Passive is what we are before something we love. The passion of Jesus connects to every person's experience of being dependent, vulnerable, and defenseless.
The grain of wheat falls into the ground and becomes the passive recipient of the action of the soil, the moisture, and the sun. It doesn't know where all this is going. The young man enters the monastery and becomes the passive recipient of unforeseen experiences. He doesn't know where all this is going. What are important in his acceptance of the experience, though, are the reason and the manner in which he enters this passion. The reason is love; the manner is trust.
Jesus also says, “Whoever serves me must follow me … and the Father will honor whoever serves me.”
Following Christ in his passion is not our goal; it is our way. Everything described so far is a description of what it is like to live with the Intelligence of the Victim, the mind of Christ-the-scapegoat. We serve Christ by empathy for victims and self-donation. Being the one who passively, patiently endures being vulnerable, teaches what it is like to live without scapegoating. Such a one trusts in the Father. Jesus Christ endured the displaced contempt of others without retaliation. It was His very non-retaliation which made an impression on at least one person in the crowd: the centurion.
When the centurion looked at the crucified Christ and said, “Truly, this man was the Son of God,” what had he seen that told him this? Jesus had not done or achieved anything. The Centurion had only seen him “done to”. In his passive suffering His divinity was revealed. It was here that He completed his mission to do the will of the Father.
What a person passively endures in their vocation affects them and others. It affects one's monastic brothers; it affects one's spouse. What affects a person has meaning for him. It gives meaning to his life. In this kenosis—this self-emptying—one's participation in divinity is revealed to others. In this the grain of wheat produces much fruit.
God calls us and waits for a response that cannot be compelled. It is the response of handing ourselves over. It is a response to the question: “Is there a reality worth loving with such extravagance?”
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Is 43:16-21, Phil 3:8-14, Jn 8:1-11 ]
“Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground.” Not once, but twice. The first time he could have written the name of the woman caught in adultery, and the second time he might have written the words, “You are loved.”1 Certainly her name and his love for her were written in his heart when Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin any more.”
St. Therese of Lisieux, writing about the mercy of God, expresses it this way: “Even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into the arms of Jesus, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to him.” How can we throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus and receive such mercy at the last breath of our lives?
Most of all, by the Sacraments, first by Baptism, then by Reconciliation and finally by the Anointing of the Sick. But also by indulgences. When Martin Luther condemned “selling” indulgences he started the Protestant Reformation. That abuse needed to be corrected, because nothing we do can ever buy the mercy of God, either by money or by works. Yet now, 496 years later, we still have indulgences. So, what are they, why are they still around? What part do they playin the gift of God's mercy, especially before we die?
The Catholic Catechism teaches that, “An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is [already] forgiven …”2 A partial indulgence removes part of the punishment, and a plenary indulgence removes all of it. I used to wonder what grounds we have for thinking that God is so merciful, so indulgent, as to forgive the entire debt of temporal punishment when we are properly disposed and do what is asked.3 It seems too indulgent to be true! Then one day I reflected that Baptism does much more, it washes away all sins and all the temporal punishment due to sin. Likewise, the Anointing of the Sick forgives sins committed after Baptism, and all temporal punishment. If God can show such great mercy by Sacraments he can also show his mercy by indulgences. Both are powerful acts of God's love for us. Sacraments forgive sins, and indulgences forgive the remaining punishment. Together they prepare us to go straight to heaven!
The trembling young woman caught in adultery stands for all of us. In deep anguish and sorrow over the consequences of her sin, she came face to face with Jesus. She hardly expected to escape death, much less to be loved and forgiven so completely and undeservedly. Like her, in our sinfulness, we deserve death. But when Jesus looks at her and at us with love, and sees sorrow for sin, he enfolds us in the arms of his mercy.
I want to single out one plenary indulgence that the Church desires all of us to be reminded of frequently. It is this: “The Christian faithful, who are duly disposed, may acquire a plenary indulgence at the point of death, provided they have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime. In this case the Church supplies for the three conditions3 ordinarily required for a plenary indulgence”4 Just think! A habit of prayer, sorrow for our sins, and a desire to receive God's mercy are all we need to go straight to heaven. Sacraments and indulgences work together by forgiving sins to save us from hell, and by forgiving what remains to save us from purgatory.
But what if no priest is present to anoint us? We can still receive the grace of the Anointing of the Sick by our habitual desire for it, even if we become unconscious. Because all the sacraments, except marriage and ordination, can be received as sacraments of desire when circumstances prevent us from receiving them by word and sign. How great is the mercy of God who looks deep into our hearts and seeing our sorrow for sin forgives everything, even the punishment we deserve.
Karl Rahner writes, “… the conditions for gaining an indulgence consist of very small things. This should not lead us to take indulgences less seriously, as though they were cheap. … This can only happen … by faith and grace.”5 Like the woman caught in adultery, it is by God's overwhelming love that we receive such mercy.
One day St. Therese of Lisieux heard a nun talk about going to purgatory. Therese said to her, “Oh, how you grieve me! You do a great injury to God in believing you're going to go to purgatory. When we love, we can't go there.”6 In our sinfulness we hardly think of going straight to heaven, but we can. And that is what God wants. Pray every day to St. Joseph (and St. Patrick, too!) for a happy death by asking for the Anointing of the Sick and a plenary indulgence at one's last breath. Jesus will be there, not to condemn us but to embrace us in his arms.
1. Sr. Jean Hinderer, http://csavocations.blogspot.com/ March 13, 2013.
2. Catholic Catechism, #1471.
3. Apostolic Penitentiary, “Manual of Indulgences, Norms and Grants” translated from the fourth edition (1999) of “Enchiridion Indulgentiarum,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C., 2006, Norm 20: “To gain a plenary indulgence, in addition to excluding all attachment to sin, even venial sin, it is necessary to perform the indulgenced work and fulfill the following three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff. The three conditions may be fulfilled several days [e.g. two weeks] before or after … One Our Father and Hail Mary for the Pope's intention is sufficient.” For the plenary indulgence at the moment of death these three conditions are supplied for us by the Church. They are not “works” by which we buy God's mercy. They are additional acts of God's mercy giving us the graces of faith and compunction, the sacraments and prayer.
4. Ibid, # 12, a plenary indulgence at the moment of death.
5. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol 10, Chapter 8 “A Brief Theological Study on Indulgence” Darton, Longman & Todd, London, p. 150-165.
6. “St. Therese of Lisieux, Her Last Conversation” translated by John Clarke, ICS Publications, Wash. D.C., 1977, 273.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Jer. 31: 31-34; Heb. 5: 7-9; Jn. 12: 20-33 ]
I find it a good idea after making some progress in any project to pause and evaluate whether I am achieving the goal I intended. It is too easy to get into a routine of starting something and not stopping periodically to ask, “Why am I doing this?” After I answer that question it is still necessary to ask if I am making progress in my stated purpose. The goal of any religious practice I may undertake, whether it is during Lent or any other time of the year, is to deepen my relationship with Christ. The questions I ask myself are: Am I growing in my imitation of Christ? Am I becoming a better disciple of Christ? To answer these questions I need to somehow see Christ.
Obviously we are not in the situation of Jesus' original disciples who could physically see Jesus, observe his behavior, listen to his words and learn his interior dispositions. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ has poured his Spirit into our hearts. We have the words of scripture. We have the Church's reflections on Jesus' words and actions down through the centuries. We have the sacraments to strengthen us as we continue along the way of following in Jesus' footsteps. We have the example of one another as we try to put Jesus'teachings into practice in our time. True we are not like the original disciples who lived with Jesus. Our call is to live in Christ through the Holy Spirit. In the Holy Spirit we are called to the same transformation of behavior and dispositions that Jesus' original disciples were.
This morning's readings bring us a little further along in imitating Jesus in his paschal mystery. Our goal is to share in Christ's glory, but in order to do this like the grain of wheat we must be willing to fall to the ground and die to what is old so that the Holy Spirit can bring about something that is truly new in our lives. More than something new in our lives the Holy Spirit brings us new life; but if we are clinging to our present life we won't be able to receive the new life that we are being offered. I think we all know how difficult it can be to let go of what is familiar and comfortable. At times it is necessary that the familiar and comfortable be taken away with suffering. Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered and there will be times when suffering in various ways will be our way to knowledge of God. Jesus has told us that if we want to be with him in his glory, we must also be with him in his suffering. With Jesus we will offer God heartfelt prayer in our suffering and in faith trust that God will hear us and will respond to our needs.
When we think of the suffering Jesus endured for our sake and the suffering of many people in our society and in the world, our Lenten practices may seem of little value. Considered in themselves that may be true. Their value lies in expressing to God our willingness to sacrifice our attachments to the pleasures of this life, many of them legitimate in themselves, for the sake of eternal life with him to which we are called.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Is:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11]
Two weeks ago a woman waiting in a subway station accidentally dropped her purse on the tracks. She jumped down from the platform to pick it up. All of a sudden, a train came rushing into the station toward her with screeching brakes and blowing horn. She grabbed the edge of the platform to climb up and then froze in fearful despair at her fatal mistake because time had run out. No one was able to take her hand and pull her out of harm’s way.
When another woman in the very act of adultery heard the noise of intruders burst into her bed chamber, she also froze in fear as the witnesses of her mistake pounced upon her. Time had run out. She was caught and now she would be punished. Ignoring the man, they laid hands on the woman, pushing and pulling her along unwillingly to the Temple area where Jesus was teaching.
Christ promised, “Seek and you will find.” The adulteress sought pleasure, and found it; but she also found darkness and despair. Leo Tolstoy writes about his own sinfulness: “My straying had resulted not so much from wrong thinking as from bad living. I realized that the truth had been hidden from me not so much because my thoughts were in error as because my life itself had been squandered in the satisfaction of lust… I realized that in asking, ‘What is my life?’ and then answering, ‘Evil,’ I was entirely correct. [But I took] an answer that applied only to myself and applied it to life in general; I had asked myself what my life was and received the reply: evil and meaningless. And so it was, wasted in the indulgence of lusts. [But] that assertion applies only to my life and not to life in general. I understood the truth that I later found in the Gospel, people cling to darkness and shun the light because their deeds are evil.”1
Another sinner writes, “This is a strange experience: realizing that the hand holding one’s head under water belongs to one’s self. Who had destroyed my life? I had. No longer did I feel that I was the Supreme Judge of the World. No. I had become the guilty, the despised, the condemned.” We may fall by our own hand, but we cannot be saved by our own hands.
The woman caught in adultery was dragged before Christ. They made her stand there in naked shame, with tears streaming down her face, and the noise of the accusers filling her ears. Dust and dirt clung to the bare parts of her body where she had stumbled. The accusations of the witnesses shook her entire being with the alarming and devastating truth, not of her innocence but of her guilt. The punishment for her sin was stoning. She cried not only from her eyes but from her soul. She had chosen evil, and evil demands justice, a punishment fitting the sin.2 Time had run out for her.
The crowd stared at the woman and the Master, for both were sinners, she by adultery and he, they thought, by breaking the Sabbath and blasphemy. They would like to be rid of him even more than her, manhandling the woman to trap the Master. Living in darkness they flashed and pointed at the sins of others, ignoring their own. That was about to change. For the brighter penetrating light of Christ will show that when one finger is pointed at others, three fingers point backward to oneself.
Jesus saw the pathetic woman standing there before him, cringing in her exposed sinfulness. He looked into her soul and saw the inner anguish and heard the cries wringing her heart and wrenching her body. She was alone, isolated from God and from the people around her. Christ also looked at her accusers and saw their souls as well, the unacknowledged sinfulness of their own lives that caused them pain and loneliness too, sometimes even bitterness and hatred. Instead of being swept up in wonder at the amazing beauty and value of every living being, even the sinner, they were blinded by their own darkness until Jesus said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”2 A steady Light penetrated their darkness and exposed their guilty consciences. Jesus would have forgiven them all, but they fled back into darkness going their own way, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. St. Augustine writes, “Only two were left, misery and mercy.” When Jesus bent down before everyone, as he did by his Incarnation, what did he write on the ground the first time? Perhaps he wrote, “All have sinned.” And the second time? Perhaps, “I will forgive.” For sure, this is the message of Jesus written in the Gospels.
All have fallen. We need love and forgiveness to become entirely beautiful again. It was offered to all, but only the woman remained to receive it. Jesus rose up and stood before her, as he did again for us at the Resurrection. Did he put his finger under her chin, gently raising her head until he could look into her eyes? Did he wipe away her tears as he asked, “Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” Did he take her hand in his own as he replied, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and leave your life of sin”? Time had not run out after all. She and we are given another chance, over and over again, until the end. Physical miracles are good, but the greatest of all miracles takes place within the heart, within the very depths of our being.2 St. Bernard writes, “The cost of forgiving us was more difficult for God than creating the world. He made us by a single word. In remaking us he had to suffer crucifixion.” When our time runs out will we be holding the hand of Jesus leading us out of harm’s way? In every sacrament, at every Mass, Jesus offers us his hand. Take it, and go his way.
A great German Renaissance artist of the sixteenth century, Lucas Cranach the Younger, painted the scene of the woman caught in adultery. She is standing next to Jesus with his left hand entwined with her right hand in protective tenderness, the hand of mercy joined to the hand of misery, giving her love and forgiveness, making her completely beautiful again.
We live in the land of beginning again, in the Church, where our mistakes, our sins, can be forgiven. But let us not replace the sin of despair with the sin of presumption by going our own way. St. Benedict writes in the prologue of his Rule for Monasteries, “If we want to escape the pains of hell and attain life everlasting, then, while there is still time, while we are still in the body and are able to fulfill all these things by the light of this life, we must hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity. … As we advance in conversion of life and faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with the unspeakable sweetness of love.” Christ stretched out his hands for us and made us his own. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, toward the goal, the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Jer. 31: 31-34; Heb. 5: 7-9; Jn. 12: 20-33]
A theme that runs through the Bible is that God’s way of doing things often differs from what we would expect. Isaiah states it succinctly: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. The gospels have the saying of Jesus that the first according to our way of reckoning will be last and the last will be first. This morning’s readings almost hammer the point into our heads. New life comes from the death of the seed. If we love our life, we will lose it; but we will find life through self-denial. In what seems to be the victory of the world over Jesus, the world is in fact judged and its ruler is thrown out. In the letter to the Hebrews we heard that the Son of God learned obedience through what he suffered, and because of this he became the source of our salvation. What are we to make of this?
I think our beginning is to acknowledge that God’s ways are beyond our comprehension. This does not mean that we have no knowledge of God or of his ways, but it does mean that our knowledge of God and of his ways of acting in our lives always falls short of the reality of God. In the language of theology, God is a mystery; and a mystery is not simply a puzzle that if I had enough information or ingenuity I could figure out. A mystery is beyond the human capacity to fully know. It is like trying to put a quart of water into an eight ounce glass. There is simply too much water for the glass.
If we can accept this in humility and not demand that God conform to our way of seeing things, what we can know about God will point us in the direction of God. God in his kindness will condescend to our limitations and bring us to himself according to our capacities. Certainly God’s greatest act of condescension was to become one of us in Jesus Christ. Following Christ is our way to return to God from whom we have wandered. However, following Christ means a willingness to walk in faith. It means a willingness to follow in Christ’s way when we do not fully understand where this will take us; at times it will mean a willingness to follow in Christ’s way when it seems to be taking us where we do not want to go.
This is true of all of our life in Christ, but Lent is a privileged time to learn the obedience of faith. It may seem that any particular Lenten practice we undertake is small and relatively insignificant; but God does not judge the value of our efforts by quantity. He looks at the humility of our hearts, and our willingness to learn his ways. In some cases I never know how attached I am to material things until I try to do without some particular thing that I didn’t think was that important. The Lenten season frequently brings to light my lack of charity and my self-centeredness in my relations with my brothers and sisters. These experiences are all calling me to change my way of seeing reality and thinking about it. In small and perhaps unnoticed ways our Lenten practices are forming us to accept in faith the larger challenges that may come our way and that are not of our choosing.
Our ways are not God’s ways. They can become God’s ways if each day we follow Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11]
Adultery! It was early in the morning, as the sun was beginning to rise over Jerusalem, when a man and woman lingered too long in the sensual delights of their couch and were caught in the blazing passion of their wrongful action.
Punishment would be severe. The Koran sentences those guilty of adultery to be flogged with a hundred stripes, and it warns the judges, “Do not let compassion move you,”. The law of Moses was even more severe, the death penalty. In the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, when God reproaches the adulterous nation he says, “Because your nakedness was uncovered … I will judge you as those who break wedlock. … They shall strip you of your clothes and take away your fair jewels, and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a host against you, and they shall stone you …” .
Pulled from the arms of her lover who was unfairly left behind, this adulteress was already stripped of her clothes, ready for stoning. Perhaps the Scribes and Pharisees dragged her just as she was through the streets of Jerusalem to the outer court of the Temple. They thrust her in front of Jesus and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say?” The plight of this woman weeping and shaking with fear was dreadful. The law demanded punishment, but it had to be by stoning only if the adulteress was a maiden in the period of her betrothal,. A maiden would be quite young, not even an adult by our reckoning. The trap is set. The young girl is seriously in the wrong, heart-wrenchingly pitiable. Justice and mercy are set in conflict with each other.
In the law of Deuteronomy both she and her paramour must die, but where is he? Many heard Jesus say he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it,. According to his own teaching, someone who even looks with lust at another has already committed adultery in the heart and is at risk of being cast into Gehenna, . Will Jesus stand firm like John the Baptist who preferred to die under the axe of King Herod rather than unjustly condone the king’s adultery? Or, will Jesus be swayed by his compassion for the girl to side with pagans, with Roman law forbidding Jews to inflict a death penalty? Will he stand up for justice with Jerusalem or will he bend to condone adultery by obeying Rome? Will his justice be unmerciful, or will his mercy be unjust? Will he condemn the girl while the boy goes free?
Jesus does not stand up against her. Instead, he bends all the way to the ground and begins writing in the dust. It is his posture that’s important here, not what he writes. While all other eyes are gawking at the girl and being deliciously scandalized, Jesus shows respect by turning his eyes to the ground and bending low. Thinking they have trapped him into condoning her sin, the Scribes and Pharisees close in to press their attack and insist on an answer. Only then does Jesus stand up, not to confront the trembling girl but to confront the conniving executioners. “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”
“Without sin.” The word Jesus used means complete innocence not only from sinful deeds, but even from the sinful desires and lust that Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus turns the trap upon the accusers, forcing them to make the choice between mercy and justice. Then, instead of staring them down, he once again turns his eyes away and bends low to the ground offering those sinners the same deference in their embarrassment as he showed to the girl in her nakedness. A profound silence falls upon the court while each one is self-convicted by the inner judgment of his own conscience. Everyone has sinned. The great German dramatist, Goethe, writes, “One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself,”. Beginning with the eldest, the silence of the courtyard is broken as one by one rocks drop from their hands and strike the paving stones. Of all the sinners who were present, only the astonished girl remains standing there in the encounter with Jesus. Only she hears his forgiving words restoring her to the embrace of divine friendship with God and challenging her to a new way of life. She entered the encounter with Jesus by force, sinful and naked, facing a brutal death. She leaves it in freedom, forgiven and clothed with the righteousness of Jesus and, I imagine, with his own cloak wrapped gently around her.
She has just experienced the sacrament of reconciliation, an encounter with the love and mercy of God. This sacrament is Christ’s gift to us. It’s not only our way of saying we’re sorry, (but, thankfully, we may do just that). It is much more God’s way of wanting us to hear him say out loud with tender love, “I forgive you,” and challenging us to a better life. In coming to the sacrament of reconciliation we are like the adulteress girl encountering Jesus with all our sinfulness uncovered. She was a sinner among sinners, but only she heard the loving words of Jesus, “Neither do I condemn you, go and do not sin again.” It’s too bad the boy wasn’t there. What a great gift he missed in this encounter with Jesus reconciling a sinner with God.
This story does not end among the scattered stones lying abandoned on the courtyard of the Temple. It ends on the hard rock of Calvary, because the mercy of Jesus saves us not by unjustly condoning our sins, but by taking our punishment on himself. Like an adulterer about to be stoned, Jesus was stripped of his clothes and brutally tortured, dying naked upon the cross. He took the boy’s place, and the girl’s, and ours. Justice and mercy have kissed in the person of Jesus who makes love to us by taking our death sentence upon himself and putting the cloak of his mercy around our shoulders. If we don’t walk away in shame like the girl’s accusers, if we stand exposed in all our sinfulness with the girl, we also will encounter the mercy and love of Jesus
The end of this story is the beginning of another. It was early in the morning, as the sun was beginning to rise over Jerusalem, when some women came to the tomb of Jesus and found the couch empty!
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33]
It’s a year ago since Pope John Paul II passed away. A few weeks after his historic funeral, the whole world wanted to see his successor and was curious as to who and how he would lead the Church. Media footages, books and interviews came out as in a flashflood. Among the materials we have read and heard about him, the reporting by Paul Elie1 seems to have brought us to a closer look at the new Pope, not just the man who served as the watchdog of the Church’s doctrines, but now the man in white robe. His article, “The Year of Two Popes” glimpsed behind the official scenes as he interviewed some of Benedict XVI’s close collaborators. Elie cleverly identified his four main sources naming them after the four evangelists with all their distinct perspectives of the new pope.2
I thought that was clever because even our access to Jesus initially comes through the four Gospels or by interviewing the four men who have been in touch with the man Jesus directly or indirectly. From their varying viewpoints on Jesus’ person and ministry, we come to an integrated picture of who Jesus was and is. In today’s Gospel, some Greeks or Gentiles of non-Jewish background approached Philip with the appeal, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus”. The revered rabbi-healer from Nazareth was gaining fame by this time even among the Gentiles or beyond the confines of Israel. Could they be like the media people? Or were they part of a pilgrim group that curiously went to Jerusalem? Whoever they were, they wanted to see, perhaps interview, Jesus, but was that possible at all — with all the crowds that thronged around him?
There were the intermediaries, Philip and Andrew, the apostles with Greek names. It pays off to know the right contacts then. Nothing is mentioned whether Jesus was able to speak to this group. However, his response hinted at how he would be more accessible, not just to them but to all peoples—even beyond Israel to the Gentiles, not just to the people of his time, but even to us now in the 21st century and to all places of the world. A final revelation was about to happen. Jesus was not just the admired preacher and healer from Galilee. He is the Son of God.
“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”. Such is Jesus’ response to those who wanted to see him. It is like telling them to wait and see – and then more people will be able to see and even relate more intimately with him. But first, he has to go through a process of dying, just like a grain of wheat that needs to fall into the ground and die in order to produce more fruit. This text is a watershed in John’s gospel. After the signs of his identity have been revealed in the previous part , the remaining chapters unveil his glory in his Father . Only when a grain falls to the earth and dies will it become more fruitful. To those of us who are fond of road markers so as not to lose the way, in John, this passage is easy to remember. It is found in Jn 12:24. Just recall the number of apostles or the number of hours during the day and then double it: it’s 12-24. The numbers 12-24 tell us that we make double fruitfulness of our time when we offer them to the Lord and follow his steps. Actually, after the formula to closeness with Him, he exhorts us and all his disciples, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me” . The other gospels are one in telling us that the basic path to greater life is through Jesus. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” . No matter how golden and smooth the husk of the grain is, it reveals its greatness only when it has to shed it off by falling to the ground. Life within it springs forth and it yields into more life.
Our mom used to tell us when we were kids that in order to grow big we have to sleep early and well, and to take our noonday nap. It meant for us dying a bit by losing some of the playtimes and outside games. But occasionally, we would measure how tall we’ve grown by the tape measure on the wall. Growing older and mature, we are told by Jesus that the way to the spiritual heights lies in dying in Him. “He who wants to follow me must serve me. Where I am, there is my servant too.” To see Jesus is not just to look at a painting or devotional picture of his. It is not just to blabber his words or gesticulate as paintings portray him. It is to follow him where he goes. His preaching and ministry were all meant to prepare the listener and those who are healed to be ready to die to this life with him. This is clearly meant when for the third time, we hear him saying, “Once I am lifted up from earth, I will draw all men to myself”. His crucifixion was the most shameful and humbling part of his life that led him to death. But it was also in this dying that his Father raised him up to new life. Then as the letter to the Hebrews notes, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” .
Do you also want to see Jesus or be closer to Him? Well, who would not? We surely want to be close to the Son of God. We want eternal life. Now he tells us to follow him where he goes or how he does it. He goes to the Father by dying. How do you do that? You don’t need to go to faraway places to find him. In truth, he finds you where you are and from there, he leads you and me. He was troubled too at the prospect of dying but for love of his Father and us, he went through it. In such moments, Jesus meets me as I yearn to see him.
I may be feeling lost after having been disillusioned with many fleeting obsessions in my life—in alcohol, drugs, sex, money, quest for power, in admirable beauty or perfect health. In time, all these things burst like bubbles and the glitters fade. Where do I go from here? Jesus tells us, learn to die with me. I may be alone, feeling lonely, dejected and desperate. By being in his side, the desolate moments are a prelude to a glorious company with Him and his Father. With Him, joy to the fullest is in store. I may be dying because of shame and public ridicule, but Jesus culls me and comforts me with his saving love, even as he hangs on the cross. I may be helpless, having lost some limbs, a treasured job, a loved one, my freedom, or a comfortable living. With Jesus who lifts us up with him to his cross, we can see a bigger picture from a higher perspective of life. Life is full of mystery, a puzzle with some parts missing. But with Jesus, everything falls into its proper place. We are not eternally meant for this world. We are meant for the Kingdom of the Father. The way to it is through Jesus, with him and in him. To the first disciples who wanted to know where Jesus lived, he told them, “Come and see” . They went with him and saw—even their own death. But this led to eternal life with Jesus. They now witness to us what a fruitful life indeed is in store for us. For the investors among us, casting lot with Jesus is a bright prospect. It is a 12-24 dividend payoff.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45]
I wonder if there have been moments in your life when you said to yourself: “Where on earth is my friend, now that I really need him?” Perhaps you were feeling very lonely; or discouraged, or maybe something had frightened you terribly, all of which might have been bearable, except in the midst of it, you looked around and realized you were all alone. And you wondered: “Where on earth is my friend? Your friend, it turns out, may have had any number of reasons for not being there when you needed him. He was away on business. He was on the other side of town paying a visit to one of his friends. Maybe your friend was simply too overburdened with his own troubles to concern himself with yours. Maybe your friend was sick.Or, and this can happen, maybe your friend was dead. Among the bitterest experiences we can know in this life, is the shock and disappointment of discovering that our friend; the beloved of our heart who promised us he would always be there, and who we truly believed always would be is dead.
We might look at this morning’s gospel as an illustration of the bewildering ups and downs of one particular human friendship. Jesus, for years, has been a frequent guest at the house of Lazarus. He likes it there; enjoys the food, the easy company, and trust, of Lazarus and his sisters, and Over the course of time Jesus and Lazarus become very close friends. One day, Lazarus becomes very ill. Jesus could cure him but, Jesus isn’t around; he’s . . . somewhere else. Martha goes in search of him, finds him and says: “Lord, your friend is very sick.” Jesus of course will rush to Lazarus’ side at once and cure him. But no, friendship is more complicated than that. Hearing Lazarus is ill, Jesus basically says to Martha: “Well, there it is. and in all things may God be glorified.” Interesting response. But friends do this to each other don’t they? It’s never been explained, but we all know, at times, even between the most familiar friends, one or the other will suddenly seem to pull back and become aloof. For no clear reason, a dear friend can seem to us strangely removed, unresponsive, inaccessible. This moment in a friendship is inevitable and yet always feels to us like a complete surprise — and it hurts. Jesus, for reasons ultimately mysterious, is distancing himself from Lazarus his friend, and at the most inopportune moment, and for two days more, denies Lazarus the comfort of his presence. Poor Lazarus. We’ve all been in his place, and know how painful and perplexing is a friend’s apparent indifference, especially when we feel it over a period of time. We feel crushed; we are astonished; resentful; panic stricken, and, in this state of mind, are apt to misbehave: “Well—I’ll show him!”, we say, “Oh yeah—he’ll live to regret the day he treated his friend like this! I’ll show him!” Jesus, hasn’t appeared or sent word to his sick friend for two entire days. Lazarus will teach Jesus a lesson he’ll never forget, Lazarus will show him, and—he dies. Interesting behavior.
But we do this sort of thing don’t we? Our close friend becomes aloof, for apparently no reason: “Ha!” We say: “You want to see aloof! I’ll show you aloof! I can be aloof, too, you know! Maybe I’ll have an accident; a really serious bloody accident! Maybe I’ll suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, and there you’ll be: attending my funeral. Think how you’ll feel then! Ha! I’ll show you!” The unpardonable insult of a friend’s indifference must be answered: and so, we entomb ourselves in silence, we vanish, cease to exist, and taking our revenge—we die. But it doesn’t work. Antics like this usually have the effect of alienating our friend and causing her to pull back even more. Jesus, shortly learns of Lazarus’ death, and responds basically: “Well, there it is. Actually, I’m glad I wasn’t there.” Clearly we were mistaken to think that Jesus and Lazarus were friends. But no, friendship is more complicated than that. A relationship that should have ended with Lazarus’ burial, amazingly endures, and in the lines immediately following we find Jesus standing beside Lazarus’ tomb, talking to his friend: “Lazarus—stop it, and come out here so we can talk.” In a final demonstration that friendship is always a mystery and a surprise, Lazarus obeys, and comes out.
But, that can’t be right. Actually, when you think about it, there can be no question of Lazarus “obeying” Jesus at this moment. Lazarus is dead. In fact, we would be completely mistaken to say Lazarus raised himself from the dead in response to Jesus’ call. No—it is Jesus call that raises to life the dead man Lazarus, who, being dead as dead can be, no longer has power to do or choose anything. Likewise in any friendship, when one party in the friendship has become dead to the other, reconciliation between them cannot be effected by the dead one, but only by the living one; the one in whom the Spirit of Christ stirs, the Lord’s living Spirit working in him to raise his dead friend to life by a heartfelt purely fortuitous act of love.
Perhaps you yourself had a friend once; a friend who, because of some hurtful misunderstanding, no longer counts you as a friend; no longer speaks to you; and, maybe, for some time now has not even acknowledged that you exist. And perhaps, on most days, your attitude toward all this is: “Yeah, well . . . whatever.” But sometimes, especially in the evening, memories and a feeling wells up in you and you realize—you do miss her. You miss her, because, the plain truth is, she was once very dear to you. It might be a very fitting and beautiful way to celebrate Easter this year, as the whole church rejoices in the resurrection of our Lord, to recall that, by your baptism, the life of the risen Christ has been communicated to you, and along with His risen life, His power to change death into life. You might celebrate Easter this year by remembering that, in Christ, you have power to raise the dead, and daring to approach the dreadful tomb of silence which now encloses that person once so beloved, say, by the power of Christ’s Spirit living in you:
“My friend—come out!”
Fifth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Is 43:16-21, Phil 3:8-14, Jn 8:1-1]
Adultery! It was early in the morning, as the sun was beginning to rise over Jerusalem, when a man and woman lingered too long in the sensual delights of their couch, and were caught in flagrante delicto, in the blazing passion of their wrongful action.
Adultery was severely punished in ancient societies. The Koran of Islam sentenced those guilty of adultery to be flogged with a hundred stripes, and it warned the judges, “Do not let compassion move you and let a party of believers witness their punishment” (S xxiv. 1-3). The law of Moses was even more severe, a death penalty. The prophet Ezekiel describes how it was done when God reproaches Israel saying, “Because your nakedness was uncovered I will judge you as women who break wedlock. ? They shall strip you of your clothes and take away your fair jewels, and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a host against you, and they shall stone you” (Ez. 16:35-40).
Pulled from the arms of her lover who was unjustly left behind, this adulteress was already stripped of her clothes, ready for stoning. Perhaps the Scribes and Pharisees dragged her just as she was through the streets to the outer court of the Temple. They thrust her in front of Jesus, saying, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say?” The law commanded death by means of stoning whenever the adulteress was a maiden already betrothed to another man (Deut. 22:23). So, this woman shaking with fear was even more tragic. She may have been a maiden, quite young, not even an adult by our reckoning. The trap is set. The girl is seriously in the wrong, yet she is heart-wrenchingly pitiable. Justice and mercy are set in conflict with each other.
Under Mosaic law both she and her lover should die. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). According to his own teaching someone who even looks with lust at another has already committed adultery in the heart and is at risk of being cast into Gehenna (Mt. 5:28). Will Jesus stand firm like John the Baptist who preferred to die under the sword of King Herod rather than condone adultery? Or, will he be swayed by his compassion to side with Roman Law, with the pagans who did not allow Jews to inflict a death penalty? Will he stand up for justice with Jerusalem or will he condone adultery with the Romans? Will his justice be unmerciful, or will his mercy be unjust?
Jesus does not stand up against her. Instead, he bends low, all the way to the ground and begins writing in the dust. It’s his posture that is important here, not what he writes. While all other eyes are gawking at the girl and being deliciously scandalized, Jesus shows her respect by turning his eyes away and humbling himself. Thinking they have trapped him into condoning her sin, the Scribes and Pharisees press their attack and insist on an answer. Only then does Jesus stand up, not to confront the girl but to confront the executioners. “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”
“Without sin.” The Greek word means complete innocence not only from sinful deeds, but also from sinful desires or intentions. Jesus turns the trap upon themselves, forcing them to choose between justice and mercy. Then, instead of staring them down, he once again turns his eyes away and bends low to the ground offering them the same respect he showed to the girl. A profound silence falls upon the court as each one is self-convicted by the inner judgment of conscience. Everyone has sinned. The great German dramatist, Goethe, author of Faust, writes, “One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself” (Maxims & Reflections, p. 86). Beginning with the eldest, the silence is broken as one by one rocks drop from their hands and strike the paving stones. Of all the sinners who were present, only the girl remains standing there in the encounter with Jesus. Only she hears those forgiving words restoring her to the embrace of divine friendship with God and challenging her to a new way of life. She entered the encounter with Jesus by force, sinful and naked, facing a brutal end. She leaves it in freedom, forgiven and clothed with the righteousness of Jesus and, I imagine, with his own cloak wrapped gently around her.
She experienced a sacrament of reconciliation, an encounter with the love and mercy of Jesus. This sacrament is his gift to us. It is not so much our way of saying we’re sorry, as it is his way of wanting us to hear his forgiving words, and to challenge us to a better life. In coming to the sacrament of reconciliation we are like the adulteress girl encountering Jesus, with all our sinfulness uncovered. She was a sinner among sinners, but only she heard Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you, go and do not sin again.” It’s too bad the boy wasn’t there with her. What a great gift we receive in the sacrament of reconciliation!
The story does not end here, in the courtyard of the Temple or in the reconciliation room of a church. It ends on Calvary, because the mercy of Jesus saves us not by condoning our sins, but by taking our punishment on himself. Like an adulterer about to be stoned, Jesus was stripped of his clothes and then brutally tortured, dying naked upon the cross in our place. Justice and mercy have kissed in the person of Jesus who loves us by taking our death sentence upon himself and covering us with mercy.