There’s a saying that every Saint has a past and that every sinner has a future. In all three readings today we look forward. We look to fresh beginnings and we look to not getting trapped in the past. All three readings today tell us that we have a God who makes all things new, he doesn’t want us trapped in the exile of sin, and in this we find hope.
A few weeks ago we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and in St. Patrick we see a saint with a past, he spent the first fifteen years of his life ignoring God and for him we know God made all things new. When we think of St. Patrick we usually think of a man dressed in green Bishop’s clothing holding some sort of a shamrock. But St. Patrick is so much more than just a man dressed in green covered in shamrocks. As Bishop of Ireland he was pretty much responsible for the conversion of the whole island. Even though he lived in the 4th and 5th centuries we do have some of his letters. We have his autobiography “The Confessions” and we have a letter he wrote to a man who had kidnapped some of his newly baptized flock; we also have his great prayer the Lorica.
St. Patrick was born in Cumberland England in the late fourth century, probably around the year 389. And even though his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon Patrick spent the first fifteen years of his life ignoring God. Not really believing all that his religious family taught him. He rebelled. When he was fifteen, however, Patrick’s life changed forever, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates. He was sold into slavery and he spent the next five to six years shepherding sheep on a lonely Irish mountain. It was during this time that Patrick experienced a conversion. Patrick would later write that his slavery was the door into his recognition of God. Slavery was his door to finding God, finding God to be the friend of his soul. In Irish he called God his Anam Cara, his soul friend, Anam meaning soul and Cara meaning friend.
After six years of slavery Patrick escaped, probably first to France and then later back home to England. He was twenty-two. His captivity had meant spiritual conversion and recognition of his calling to the priesthood. He went first to France to study for the priesthood; he was ordained and spent the next 15 or so years in France. Patrick was not the most learned of priests, he would later be criticized for his lack of theological knowledge. He was, however, still consecrated a Bishop at the age of 43. At that time he was beginning to realize that his growing desire was to preach the Gospel to the Irish.
In a dream he said it seemed that, “All the children of Ireland from their mothers’ wombs were stretching out their hands to me.” He understood the vision to be a call to do mission work in pagan Ireland. Despite opposition from those who felt his education had been defective, he was sent to carry out the task. They weren’t expecting much from him. However, early on through his preaching Patrick made numerous converts.
In his preaching Patrick was emphatic in encouraging widows and widowers to remain chaste and encouraging young women to consecrate their virginity to Christ. He ordained many priests, divided the country into dioceses, held Church councils, founded several monasteries and continually urged his people to greater holiness in Christ. He baptized and confirmed thousands and thousands and thousands of people. In his thirty years of evangelizing much of the Island was converted. And later, missionaries from Ireland would go on to convert the continent of Europe.
Yet in spite of all this success Patrick met great opposition and criticism from other Church officials. They didn’t like the way he conducted his missions, they still thought him a bit dumb, and even though he lived a life beyond reproach, they criticized him for the sinful behavior of his younger years, something that had been forgiven decades ago. He was condemned by the religious people of his day, in much the same way the woman caught in adultery was condemned by the religious of her day.
But Patrick resisted, in the midst of the accusers he clung to Christ, in the same way the woman of today’s gospel learns to cling to Christ, the new friend of her soul. In both these cases it was religious people who wanted to trap Patrick and the woman in their past sins. Religion is to be used as a power of liberation, of looking forward of being freed of a sinful past. Our solidarity in sin ought to awaken in us a greater compassion for others, it shouldn’t prompt us to attack but instead should prompt us to solidarity.
As St. Augustine once said the misery of the woman caught in adultery meets the mercy of Christ. And when Jesus tells her to go and do not sin anymore he’s emphasizing the future, he’s emphasizing that because she is to become a future saint. And he’s telling her to follow God’s upward calling in himself, the call to be holy. He makes everything new. Now we might be imprisoned by past sins, we might cringe about something in our past that causes shame, maybe we can’t let go of resentment, maybe there’s some roadblock to reconciliation, or maybe we’re convinced that God won’t forgive. In all these cases we are misery, but mercy is always right in front of us. Jesus is always with us. As St. Patrick once prayed: Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Christ. May your salvation O Lord, be ever with us.
Saints always have a past and sinners always have a future.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley