5th Sunday of Lent Isaiah 43:16–21; Philippians 3:8–14; John 8:1–11*
The forgiving Jesus Lent is a time to reform one’s life.
One day in 1980, a young Russian woman, named Tatiana Goricheva,crossed the Soviet border to freedom.
Once in the West, she wrote a book about her conversion to Christianity, which had taken place in Russia.
From earliest childhood, Tatiana had been a rebellious child. She hated the tyranny of Russia. She hated the people around her for putting up with this tyranny. She hated her parents for not protesting against it.
Tatiana sought escape from this cruel world by burying herself in books and reading. Eventually she went to college.
There she distinguished herself as a brilliant student and scholar. But instead of fitting in with the other students, she associated with the low life of Russian society: drug users, alcoholics, prostitutes.
While living this divided life, she became interested in Eastern mysticism, especially the practice of yoga. One of her books on yoga suggested using the Lord’s Prayer as a mantra.
A mantra is a series of syllables or words that a person repeats over and over while doing yoga exercises.
The meaning of the Lord’s Prayer began to sink into her slowly. She found it an incredibly beautiful prayer. And so she began to read everything she could find on Christianity. The more she read about it, the more fascinated she became with Jesus. Tatiana had been baptized as a child by her unbelieving parents. But she suspected it had been done more as a family tradition than as an expression of true Christian faith.
So at the age of 26, Tatiana was rebaptized. At this time she also decided to make a full confession of her life to a priest. Describing the experience, she says:
“I told the priest about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions, and my inability to love anyone.’’
When the confession was over, she was a changed person. Jesus not only had forgiven her all her sins, but had touched her deeply in the process. She went forth from it a new creation. Tatiana’s encounter with the forgiving Jesus bears a striking resemblance to the adulterous woman’s encounter with Jesus in today’s gospel. Jesus, also,forgave the adulterous woman. Jesus, also, touched her deeply. She, too, went forth a new creation.
The story of Tatiana and the story of the woman caught in adultery illustrate the purpose of Lent.
Both women were living lives that were going in the wrong direction. Both women encountered the forgiving Jesus, and both women were transformed by that encounter. The purpose of Lent is to take a close look at our lives to determine if any part of them is going in the wrong direction.
If we do find this to be the case, then we should seek out the forgiving Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation, as Tatiana did.
In that sacrament, Jesus will do for us what he did for Tatiana. He will forgive us our sins and send us forth a new creation.
This raises a serious question. Some people today are reluctant to make use of the sacrament of Reconciliation. As one person put it, “I find myself confessing the same sins over and over.Why confess them at all?’’
One way to look at this problem is to draw a comparison between our spiritual health and our physical health.
Because of our genes, each of us is born with certain physical weaknesses, like poor eyesight, different kinds of allergies, or similar physical defects.
We don’t consider it unusual to keep going back to the doctor or taking the same shots or medicine over and over for these physical defects.
What would be unusual is if we’d stop taking our allergy shots, because our allergy never goes away.
Our spiritual health is much the same. Each of us has certain spiritual weaknesses, like tending to be impatient, critical of others, proud, self-centered, and the like.
Therefore, we should not consider it unusual if we have to keep going back to confession, seeking forgiveness for failures related to these spiritual weaknesses.
Asecond reason why some people are reluctant to make use of the sacrament of Reconciliation is that they feel they don’t have anything to confess.
One way to look at this problem is to realize that, perhaps, we have become insensitive to our spiritual weaknesses and failures.
The First Letter of John says bluntly, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. . . .” 1 John 1:8
Another way to look at this problem is to realize that, perhaps, we have been focusing too much on sins of commission, rather than omission. By sins of commission we mean doing things we shouldn’t do. By sins of omission we mean not doing things we should do.
It comes as a surprise to some people to learn that the Gospel lays most of its stress on sins of omission not doing things we should do.
It is precisely this stress that we find in Jesus’ teaching on the Last Judgment. Describing that awesome moment, Jesus says:
“Then he will say to those on his left . . . ‘I was hungry but you would not feed me, thirsty but you would not give me a drink; I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes, naked but you would not clothe me; I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of me . . . Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.’ ” Matthew 25:41–45
In brief, then, Lent is a time when we take a close look at our lives to determine what part of them is going in the wrong direction. We then seek out the forgiving Jesus and ask his healing and pardon for this spiritual defect.
Let’s close by paraphrasing an ancient Christian prayer: “Jesus, my feet are dusty and dirty. Pour water into your basin and come and wash my feet, as you washed the feet of your Apostles.
“I realize that I am terribly bold in asking this. But I fear the warning you gave to Peterwhen you said, ‘If I do not wash your feet . . . you will no longer be my disciple.’
“Wash my feet, then, Jesus, because I do want your companionship more than anything in the world.’’
Series II 5th Sunday of Lent* Isaiah 43:16–21; Philippians 3:8–14; John 8:1–11
Divided hearts We all have divided hearts and need to forgive and to be forgiven.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a Russian novelist and winner of the Nobel prize for literature.He has been honored by such prestigious universities as Harvard and Stanford.
Solzhenitsyn’s story begins in 1945. In that year he was falsely accused of a political crime and condemned to eight years of hard labor in Soviet prison camps.
Out of this torturous ordeal came the writing of his most famous work, The Gulag Archipelago. It describes political terrorism in the Soviet Union, especially in Communist prisons and work camps. The work made him internationally famous, and he became a symbol of human freedom.
The Soviet Union responded by stripping Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship and deporting him for slandering his country.
Solzhenitsyn now lives in the United States, where he continues to write and lecture for the cause of human Freedom throughout the world. In chapter four of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes a friendship he had with a fellow Russian officer during World War II. This was before he was arrested. He says that he and his friend were as alike as any two people could ever be. They shared the same values, the same dreams, and the same convictions about almost everything.
Then comes a shocking revelation. After the war the lives of the two friends took incredibly different paths. Solzhenitsyn became a fighter for freedom. His close friend became an interrogator for the Soviet police. An interrogator was one of the most feared persons in the Soviet political system. He was someone who extracted confessions from people by methods of torture so terrible that it sickens you to read about them.
Solzhenitsyn raises this disturbing question: What happened to his close friend to cause him to do this? Or as Solzhenitsyn puts it, “How did everything in his consciousness recircuit itself?’’
Solzhenitsyn’s answer surprises us. He says that if he himself had been in the wrong place at the wrong time,under the same pressures that his friend had probably been under, he might have turned out the same way his friend did. He might have become the torturer of innocent people.
Solzhenitsyn’s point makes us stop and think. He is saying that there are not two kinds of human beings in the world: good ones and bad ones. Rather, there is only one kind of human being, and that person is a complex composition of good and evil. He writes:
“One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times [close to being a saint.]’’
Upon closer consideration of Solzhenitsyn’s point, we discover that he is making the same point that Jesus makes in today’s gospel.
When so-called “good’’ people condemned the woman caught in adultery and demanded that she be stoned to death, Jesus replied, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’’
Jesus is saying that all of us have sinned. “If we say that we have no sin,” says the First Letter of John, “we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.” 1 John 1:8
Instead of pointing a finger at other people and condemning them as sinners, we should first point the finger at ourselves and acknowledge our own sinfulness. Jesus said, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:5
And this brings us to the purpose of Lent. First, it is to take inventory of our lives to see what in them needs forgiveness and healing. Second, it is to seek this forgiveness and healing from Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
This brings up a problem. What if we still feel we haven’t sinned? What if we feel we don’t have anything to confess? What about this?
Perhaps we have been focusing too much on sins of commission rather than on sins of omission. By sins of commission, we mean doing things we should not do. By sins of omission, we mean not doing things we should do.
It comes as a surprise to some people to learn that the Gospel seems to lay more stress on sins of omission than on sins of commission.
It is precisely this stress that we find in Jesus’ teaching of the Last Judgment. Describing that awesome moment, Jesus tells us that what we did not do for one of our least brothers and sisters, we did not do for him. (Matthew 25:41–45)
And so if we feel that we have not sinned and have nothing to confess, perhaps it is because we have been focusing too much on what we have done rather than on what we have failed to do.
Let’s close by paraphrasing an ancient prayer.It sums up the message of today’s readings in a poetic, biblical way:
“Jesus, my feet are dusty and dirty. Pour water into your basin and wash them, as you washed the feet of the Apostles.
“I realize that I am bold in asking this. But if you do not wash my feet, I cannot have companionship with you. So wash my feet, because I want your companionship more than anything else in the world.’’ Series III 5th Sunday of Lent Isaiah 43:16–21, Philippians 3:8–14, John 8:1–11
Reconciliation This sacrament is essential to spiritual growth.
Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” John 8:7
Father John Powell wrote a book entitled He Touched Me. The response to the book in terms of letters from readers was dramatic. Clearly, a lot of readers were touched by God through that book. One letter Father Powell received was from a woman who said that her life had become so evil she had decided to end it.
Early one morning she went to the ocean. The beach was empty. As she walked along the water’s edge, preparing to swim out to the point of no return, she heard a voice say, “Stop! Turn around, and look down.”
She stopped, turned, and looked down at the wet sand behind her. The waves had washed away all her footprints. Again, the voice spoke. It said:
“I am calling you to live and to love, not die. As the waves have washed away your footprints, so my love and mercy have washed away all of your sins.” Regardless of how we may want to explain that voice, this much is certain: It had a transforming impact on her. She left the beach, closed the door on her old life, and opened the door to a whole new life.
She told Father that she had never shared that experience with anyone before, adding, “Who’d have believed me?”
The woman’s story fits in beautifully with the woman caught in adultery in today’s Gospel; and like that story, it illustrates what Lent is all about.
It’s about Jesus calling each one of us to live and love, and not to die. It’s about Jesus inviting us to open our hearts to his love and mercy in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
This raises a vexing question: Why are many people reluctant to open their hearts to Jesus in this incredibly beautiful sacrament?
One man explained his own reluctance this way:
“I was confessing the same thing over and over, so I eventually stopped. I felt silly confessing the same thing all the time.”
How can we respond to the man? I think some basic information might help him. First, he must be reminded that we are all born with a physical and a spiritual dimension.
Physically, each of us is born with some physical vulnerability or proneness to some physical ailment, like asthma, an allergy, or an eye problem.
As a result, we need to seek medical attention from time to time or even on a regular basis.
In his book The Christian Vision, Father John Powell gives an example of a person with an eye defect. He writes:
I once knew a young man who was born seriously myopic. He could see only a few feet. . . .
When the schools he attended sent this word home, his parents reasoned, “When we were his age, we did not need glasses. Why should he?”
And so the boy grew up in the only world that was available to him through his nearsighted vision.
One day in his eighteenth year he consulted an eye doctor on his own. The doctor sat him down and kept experimenting with corrective lenses until he had the proper prescription. The doctor then told the boy to look out the window.
“Wow!” the young man gasped. It was so beautiful. For the first time in his life, he could see the blue skies with white puffs of clouds. He could see the smiling faces of people.
He was absolutely mesmerized. Had the young man given up and resigned to living with poor vision, he would have missed a lifetime of beauty.
That brings us to the spiritual dimension that we are all born with. For example, we may be born with a spiritual temperament that makes us prone to anger, envy, or impatience.
As a result, we constantly struggle against these spiritual ailments. That’s where the sacrament of Reconciliation comes in.
Just as we need ongoing medication for certain physical problems, so we need ongoing “medication” for certain spiritual ailments.
The tragedy is that we can become so frustrated over the bother involved in ongoing “medication” for our physical and spiritual ailments that we put it off or neglect it.
It is not uncommon for people with ongoing physical ailments to omit treatment and resign themselves to live with the ailment as the boy with myopia was forced to do for 18 years.
Similarly, it is not uncommon for people to omit ongoing medication for spiritual ailments.
This can lead to something even more tragic: the loss of all “sense of sin” in our lives. This is especially true when it comes to “sins of omission.”
Unlike “sins of commission,” which involve doing what we shouldn’t do, “sins of omission” involve failing to do what we are obliged to do.
It surprises some people to learn how often and sternly Jesus warns us about our “sins of omission.” This is especially true concerning our obligation to love God and our neighbor. The most forceful warning about the obligation to love our neighbor comes in connection with Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment.
Jesus says to those who failed to heed his warnings about this obligation:
“Away from me. . . . I was hungry but you would not feed me, . . . naked but you would not clothe me. . . . [W]henever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.” Matthew 25:41–43, 45
In the two remaining weeks of Lent, let us pray for the grace to become more aware of our “sins of omission.”
Let us pray, especially, for the grace to seek forgiveness, help, and healing for our spiritual ailments in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Doing this could be one of the most important decisions of our life. It could be infinitely more important than the decision of the boy with myopic vision to seek the help and healing of the eye doctor.