Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): On this final Lenten Sunday before Palm Sunday, Christ looks at us as He looks at the woman caught in adultery. Her sin, our sin is patent and undeniable. The question is: how do we look back at Christ? With the self-righteous yet guilty eyes of the scribes and the Pharisees who drop their stones but not their murderous intentions (which they now transfer to Jesus)? Or like the adulteress who remains alone before Jesus and who accepts with humble confidence the sentence of Christ: “I do not condemn you”? The woman gains “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus” as her Lord. Thanks to that event, we accept the loss of all things, considering them as so much rubbish … especially our willfulness, our self-sufficiency, our meanness, our malice, our self-assertion and our pride. She and we “remember not the events of the past” but instead enter upon the path that the Event who is Christ opens in “the mighty waters”: the accumulation of all the tears shed throughout history. The Father opens a way, not in the sea, but in His Son's side.
(This weekend's Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings forth chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
"Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: The Church's special weeks of prayer, penance and almsgiving are nearing their climax. At the end lies the great Paschal Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when the Church recalls and celebrates Israel's Exodus from physical slavery in Egypt and our ongoing Second Exodus from humanity's spiritual slavery to sin. Isaiah recalls the first and anticipates the second in the reading that begins this weekend's Liturgy of the Word.
What is this “new thing” that God declared He was doing? It would have been difficult for Israel and Judah, beset by foreign foes and then the miseries of Assyrian and Babylonian exile, to find a contemporary meaning in Isaiah's words. They may have found hope for the restoration to come under Persian rule, but this passage does not point to that time as clearly as other prophecies by Isaiah and other prophets. This “new thing” would have to take place on a more exalted plane – one in which not only human beings but other living creatures would honor God for His greatness and mercy.
We know that exalted plane as God's decision to be born as one of us and restore us to Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first Passover that launched Israel's Exodus involved the sacrifice of perfect, spotless lambs who saved God's people by their blood. Our Second Exodus began on the first Good Friday, when “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” Our lost, sinful world had never seen anything like this, and it never will again. There is no need for it to be repeated, for Christ died once for all – but He eternally offers His once-for-all sacrifice to His Father for the sins of the world. This is the “new thing.” Let us rejoice in it and eagerly grasp the hand that Jesus extends to us!
Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians.
Brothers and sisters: I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Paul had come to know and celebrate the “new thing” God had done when the risen Jesus confronted him on the Damascus road. As the imprisoned Apostle to the Gentiles contemplated that event and all that happened to him afterward, he confidently confessed to his beloved Christian friends in Philippi how priceless he found Christ's gift of salvation. Even as the young Saul of Tarsus had zealously devoted himself to wiping out the young Church's perceived threat to Judaism, Jesus reached from heaven to take him by the hand and redirect his entire life. Truly Paul understood that there is nothing human beings can do to earn their salvation!
Even now, after suffering many personal and physical attacks, Paul declares that he has not yet been perfected in Christ. He surely devoted himself to the pursuit of that goal, all the way to his beheading. But did that devotion spring from his imperfect, sinful self? Later generations of Christians would disagree violently and even separate from each other over that question. But Paul always maintained a tension between God's grace and any good works that issued forth from himself or other Christians. He knew that anything good he might have done came from God alone; without His grace, he could do nothing. So he passes on his thoughts to the Philippians – and through them, to us – so that they might run the same race and pursue the same goal he would one day reach on the chopping block in Rome. God alone empowered Paul. He alone empowers His followers. And He alone empowers us.
Gospel: John 8:1-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John. Glory to You, O Lord.
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again."
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: What did Jesus write on the ground? Some scholars have speculated that He wrote out the individual sins of the scribes and Pharisees who confronted Him, daring Him to either excuse the adulterous woman's sins or to thunder down condemnation. Perhaps. It's just as easy to imagine that Jesus chose that moment to do a very human thing: to doodle on the ground as we ourselves might do if someone came to us and said something so foolish that we refuse to dignify the statement with a direct response.
In any case, imagine Jesus looking at the woman and then looking at His hypocritical opponents. He communicates His regard for the Jewish leaders' intentions by writing something or nothing. Then He looks up, bores His gaze deep into their hearts and utters the words that cause them to slowly shrink away in humiliation. He looks at them no longer than He must; He returns to His purposeful – or purposeless – writing that would last only until someone walked over it with his or her feet. Finally, left alone with the woman, He could give His true answer: I forgive you. You have a fresh start. But … “do not sin again.”
These last words often are overlooked. By their omission in our hearts, Jesus' actions can be distorted into the very excuse for sin that the scribes and Pharisees hoped to extract from him. He offers no such excuse; being the perfect God, He could not possibly do so. If the woman went away from Jesus and willfully resumed the practice of sexual sin, she would have thrown away her fresh start. Only she and her Lord know what happened later. But the possibility of rejection did not deter Christ from forgiving her! And think of this: All the rejection of God from the Garden of Eden until now – and beyond this moment to the end of time – has not and will not deter God from forgiving us. Until the last moment of our lives, we always have the chance to start anew. Let us grasp the opportunity Christ gives us all when He tells us: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.”
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be