Bottom line: Jesus transformed her misery into pure joy. He wants to do that for you and me. He wants to give us joy now.
It might surprise you that the theme of joy comes up so much during Lent. For example, last week we had "Laetare Sunday." Laetare is the Latin word for "rejoice." And if you listen carefully, you will notice that "laetare" has the same root as the name "Leticia," which means simply "joy." The theme of rejoicing continues this Sunday. For example, our Psalm says, “The Lord has done great things for us. We are filled with joy.”
Where does all this talk about joy come from? We tend to think of Lent as a solemn time: with prescribed days of fasting and abstinence, examination of conscience and confession of sin, station of the cross and meditation on the passion. All of that is part and parcel of Lent, Yet the goal of this is not to make us unhappy. Just the opposite - the goal is joy.
St. Thomas Aquinas said, "No man can live without joy. That is why one deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures."
No one can live with without joy. If you and I do not experience joy in God - in spiritual things - we will start looking somewhere else: food, sex, vacations, mind-changing drugs, alcohol, gambling, you name it. Those things are not bad in themselves, but they do not bring a joy that lasts. And all of them can be abused, that is, we can pursue them in a way that brings destruction - to oneself and to others.
In today's Gospel, we see a woman who sought joy in a desperate way. She wanted joy so much that she was willing to jeopardize her marriage, her family, her good name and her life. But she did not receive joy, maybe not even pleasure. No doubt the man had told her how pretty she was, that she could count on him, that she meant more to him than life itself. But when trouble came, he disappeared. What the woman dreaded most was now happening. She got caught - and she stood alone. She could not have been more isolated - or more miserable.
The woman had hit bottom. When that happens, a person faces a choice. They can sink into bitterness and despair - or they can look up and reach out. The woman looked up. She saw a man tracing some letters on the ground: Perhaps a message for her accusers. Perhaps also a message for her. In short time, she was alone with the man, a very different man than she had ever met.
St. Augustine said that in the end only two remained: "miseria" and "misericordia" - misery and mercy. The woman represents "miseria" - human misery. Jesus embodies "misericordia" - he is the mercy of God. Jesus asks, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
With a shyness she had never experienced, she whispered, "No one, sir."
Then Jesus spoke those beautiful words: "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more."
Jesus transformed her misery into pure joy. He wants to do that for you and me. He wants to give us joy now. Not when everything is going well. Not when we finally get a break. No, now. Jesus wants to give us joy at this very moment.
Joy does not mean doing whatever one wants, whenever one feels like it. I know a man who, because of certain circumstances, received an early retirement. He can get up and go to bed when he wants, eat anytime and anything he desires - and he spends most of the day reading or watching television. It seems he would be very happy, but he is not. In fact, to anyone who will listen he talks about how miserable he is.
On the other hand I have known people who have very little and must work long hours, yet they have joy. Joy comes when we accept God's mercy - and resolve to sin no more.
The woman in today's Gospel shows that joy is possible, no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in. Peter Kreeft - philosophy professor at Boston College - challenges those who think joy is impossible. This is what he said:
No one who ever said to God, “Thy will be done” and meant it with his heart, ever failed to find joy — not just in heaven, or even down the road in the future in this world, but in this world at that very moment, here and now.
The Gospel does not tell us what happened to the woman, for example, whether her husband took her back. We cannot imagine that everything went smoothly for her. We live in a society where people are "caught in the act," then exposed to public shame. They can never return to their old life. The woman caught in adultery probably found herself in a similar position. After such notoriety, how can one go home?
Jesus' friends Martha and Mary may have given her temporary shelter. Early Christian tradition indicates that she wound up at the foot of the cross, next to the mother of Jesus. Whatever took place, this woman teaches us something important. No matter the circumstances of your life, no matter how much disappointment and guilt you bear, it is still possible to find joy. Look to Jesus.**
We are only seven days from Holy Week. I hope that all adults and teenagers here have seen the movie, The Passion of the Christ. If not, you can get it on DVD. The movie contains a dramatic scene of Jesus and the woman of today’s Gospel. It's well worth watching again, especially for the scene related in today's Gospel.
As we enter Holy Week, a good person to walk with is the woman rescued by Jesus. She joined her own pain to the suffering of Jesus. And she, perhaps more than most others, knew the great joy of forgiveness. Jesus transformed her misery into pure joy. He wants to do that for you and me. He wants to give us joy now. With her we can pray the beautiful words of today’s Psalm:
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
*Some preachers will use this Gospel to counsel greater 'compassion" toward those involved in sexual sin, especially the sin du jour - homosexual activity. But Jesus was hardly lax on adultery or other sexual sins - he condemned even the willful fantasies which turn a person in that direction. At the same time, "zero tolerance" was not part of his vocabulary. This so different from our society: we permit everything, but forgive nothing.
**Jesus brings joy because he focuses not on condemnation, but always on the person, the salvation of souls. Because of that focus, he took things to different level. "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." In an instant, the accusers became the accused. They left one by one, the seniors first, but even the young men, bent on eradicating evil from society, finally let the stones slip from their hands. For more on how Jesus dealt with the real dilemma in today's Gospel, see Misery and Mercy.
***To identify the nameless woman with Mary Magdalene goes beyond the evidence in the Gospel - although it is not impossible. Still, even if she is a woman other than Mary Magdelene, given the fact that Jesus alone stood up for her during her trial, would she not have stood by him during those terrible final hours?
Intercessions for Fifth Sunday of Lent (from Priests for Life)
From Archives (Year C homilies for Fifth Sunday of Lent):
The Breastplate (2013)
From Misery to Joy (2010)
Neither Do I Condemn You (2007)
Filled With Joy (2004)
Misery and Mercy (2001)
Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
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