A woman was caught in the act of adultery. In Jewish law the three gravest sins were murder, idolatry, and adultery. All three were punishable by death. So this woman is dragged into the Temple courtyard, dragged, probably half-naked, through the streets of Jerusalem. A crowd begins to gather around her. The punishment for someone caught in the act of adultery was stoning, a very barbaric way to die. In these executions the condemned person is left alone in front of a crowd. And everyone in the crowd is armed with rocks. These are big, sharp, and heavy rocks. And according to the Law the witnesses of the act were always given the privilege of throwing the first stones. The first stones were usually thrown at the head or face of the victim. As you can imagine this was a brutal, bloody, and noisy way to die.
So imagine this woman being dragged into the midst of a large crowd. Imagine the noise, the mob mentality, and the frenzied thirst for blood. She knows what she’s done and she knows the penalty. The woman doesn’t deny anything, she can’t. She was caught in the act. She’s done this. She’s guilty. She’s expecting death. And according to the Law, she deserves it.
And so now here she is totally helpless, helpless before the crowd, helpless before the Scribes and Pharisees, and helpless before the Law. There is no way out. She knows for certain that in a matter of minutes her life will be painfully over. She is a dead woman.
Until all of sudden this Man says something and does something that silences the mob. The noise, and the thirst for blood, is somehow drowned out by His challenge to them and the most wonderful thing happens. She is still alive, the crowd is gone, and the rocks that were once viciously aimed at her face are now lying harmlessly on the ground. Her life has been rescued and it’s all because of this Man now standing alone with her.
As she was being dragged into the Temple her only expectation was death, yet somehow, miraculously, she is able to walk out of the Temple alive, forgiven and with hope for the future. And it’s all because of our Lord. Jesus did not condemn her. He forgave her; He sees what St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “You are God’s masterpiece.” Her misery met His mercy.
Now what do you think this woman did in response? Do you think she just picked herself up, nodded to Jesus, saying “Thanks pal,” and then went back to her old way of life? Or do you think her whole life changed as a result of Him? The way to answer this question, I think, is to put yourself into the scene. Imagine you’re the guilty one. Imagine you’re the one facing death. Imagine you’re the one being rescued. What would you do in response?
Now in actuality you are that woman. Regardless of whether we’re guilty of the same sin or not, we are that woman. In fact we were, each and every one of us, dead in our sins. We had no hope. By our own actions we cut ourselves off from God and as a result we were cut off from the life that comes from God. But that’s not the end, because all of us, has been dramatically rescued and forgiven. And it’s happened by the Precious Blood of Jesus. Which was violently, abundantly, freely, and lovingly shed for us on the Cross. And right now, the question before each of us, is what should we do in response? How should we now live?
I have a story about forgiveness and hope. St. Angela of Foligno, recently canonized by Pope Francis, lived in the 13th century Italy. There’s not a lot that’s known about her background, but we do know that she was a beautiful woman who married into a wealthy family of cloth merchants. And that she enjoyed every comfort and luxury. Her passions were expensive clothes, jewelry, extravagant meals and rare wines. She dressed and acted in ways to provoke envy among women and desire from men. She was at times a cruel woman with a vicious temper. But there were also moments when she could be very kind.
When Angela was 37 she writes that she did something so bad that for the first time she began to fear for the life of her soul. She had committed adultery. It filled her with guilt and shame and so she resolved to go to confession. But once in the confessional she got scared and couldn’t confess the sin and so she didn’t. Even the saints sometimes have a hard time in the confessional. And so she prayed to be able to make a good confession, to be able to confess everything. A few weeks later she was able to do it. She found a “non-scary” priest who helped her through the confession. That was a turning point. Like the woman of the Gospel today encountering Jesus, she was now fully alive, forgiven, and filled with hope. She writes, however, that those first 5 years after her conversion were very hard. Her spiritual life progressed, “Only small steps at a time.” She would later write her advice to us:
“The more you pray”, she said, “the more illumined you will be and the more profoundly and intensely you will see the supreme Good, the supremely good Being; the more profoundly and intensely you see Him, the more you will love Him; the more you love Him the more He will delight you; and the more He delights you, the better you will understand Him and you will become capable of understanding Him. You will then reach the fullness of light, for you will understand that you cannot understand”
Holy week will soon be upon us. Holy Week is also known as the Great Week because it’s really the most important week of the year. I’d like to suggest that in the days ahead we bury ourselves in the Lord’s Passion. Read the Gospel accounts, come to the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral on Tuesday, come to the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, pray at the altar of repose in the school gym on Thursday night, come to the Good Friday services, and maybe even come to the Easter Vigil. Give our Lord the chance to show Himself to you. His is the greatest friendship we can ever know.
Pope St. John Paul II once said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son. When we meet that love in Jesus, it moves us to change in response. This is why Jesus says to the woman, “Go, and sin no more.” We are called to an ever new relationship with God. We come as sinners, but we leave forgiven. Our Lord is always with us. He heals us, fills us with joy, and challenges us to be a saint, a great saint.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher Ankley