We don’t hear what happened to the woman in the Gospel after her encounter with Jesus. I think it likely that her life would never be the same again. Whatever the reason for the way she had been living before, her reason for living from then on was Jesus. He had not just saved her life physically, but also spiritually and morally. Perhaps we can quote Isaiah’s words in the first reading and apply them to Jesus in his actions in favour of the woman: “See, I am doing a new deed, even now it comes to light; can you not see it?” Jesus made her a new woman by his mercy.
St. Paul also had a life-changing encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus. He was a self-righteous Pharisee possessed by murderous rage against believers in Jesus. But after meeting the Risen Lord who appeared to him, he becomes the Apostle to the nations. In the second reading today, he tells us with passion how he had changed. Everything he once held dear, he now holds as refuse because all he now wants is to be one with Christ, share in his death and resurrection, experience his power in his life. Christ’s mercy had made him a new man.
In the case of both the woman caught in adultery and the man Paul caught in murderous rage Jesus wants them to stop sinning. To the woman he says, “Go and sin no more.” Of Paul he asks the question: “why are you persecuting me?” as much as to say, “stop doing that.” But likewise, in the case of both, Jesus clearly loves them deeply. He sees beyond their sin to the deeper good he himself has placed in them. He sees their potential for love. The sin he also sees and wants to take away so that that potential for love can flourish. Sin decays the heart; mercy enlivens it. In Paul, his potential for love flourished to the point of martyrdom. In the woman, might we speculate that she was one of those who stood with Mary at the foot of the Cross?
This is how the Lord works with all of us. He takes us as we are, he accepts us as we are, but he wants to take us further, much further, to lead us to deeper loving by inviting us to stop sinning. He wants constantly to make us new by mercy. The woman may or may not have had a bad conscience about her adultery, but before being caught and meeting the Lord she probably told herself that she was doing fine, that she wasn’t doing anyone any harm, that she wasn’t doing anything that other people didn’t do. We so easily talk ourselves into glib self-satisfaction. Paul, for his part, will have congratulated himself highly that he was acting with religious zeal far more than any of his contemporaries. The woman was thrown to the ground in front of Jesus by her accusers; Jesus himself had to throw Paul to the ground. Both needed a rude awakening to come to their senses: and both got it.
Jesus brought light to their darkened hearts. In both cases he made it clear that their behaviour was wrong and had to change, while making it equally clear that he loved them and wanted, not their condemnation, but their repentance, their change of heart. As the old saying puts it with such theological accuracy: God hates the sin and loves the sinner. Perhaps we could add: God wants the sinner to hate his sin and so love himself.
Some sins are more difficult to admit or, if admitted, to budge. In the case of Paul, he did not just sin by committing this or that action, like the woman. No, Paul’s sin was far more deeply rooted in attitudes and in a mentality that had been with him from his earliest years and had been reinforced with the passing of years. When we look at sinful actions it can be easier to identify them as such: stealing, lying, cursing. But when what is sinful is an attitude or stance towards life or a mentality that we have assumed, it can be embedded very deeply in our psyches and in our souls. As a result, it can be hard to recognise or to pin down. This kind of more sophisticated sin is all the more dangerous and needs the power of prayer, penance and grace to be uncovered and forgiven. Examples of this kind of sin can be corruption, or habitual compromising with the truth, or the resistance to the Lord’s call to grow in the spiritual life, or a lifestyle built around a decision contrary to God’s will.
Probably none of us will have the immense grace of the woman and of St. Paul of meeting Jesus in the flesh this side of eternity. But we do have his Word, his Gospel. We have the sacraments, the life of prayer, the spiritual and doctrinal tradition of the Church. We have the lives of the saints and martyrs. And we have the example of so many good people around us. Even with all of this, it is hard to go against the goad of taking the easy road, of going with the flow, of giving in to the “fascination of evil” as the baptismal rite puts it. Yet, Christian maturity is not possible without renunciation and the prayerful sifting of everything that is thrown at us endlessly and relentlessly by society. Paul understood that to have Christ he had to let go of other options and preferences he once thought impossible not to have. We might perhaps think likewise that we simply cannot let go of some sinful choice we have made. We can only do it if there is a stronger pull than the pull of sin. Paul shows us that we need to ask the grace to be stirred deeply and permanently to desire Christ, to long for Christ, to be conformed to Christ. If we allow it, the attraction of Christ is stronger than any other. Certainly, Paul is a unique example, nor can we naively get rid of property and other things needed to support our families. But that inner desire for Christ we can still nurture whilst fulfilling our duties to others. Christ can become the dominant factor in our decision-making. We do it for him or we don’t do it at all.
On Thursday next, 11thApril, at 2pm, we have our parish Penance Service with five priests in attendance. Confession is a sacramental encounter with the Christ who forgave both the woman in the Gospel and St. Paul. The Lord loves us as we are. His love wants to remove from us the sins that prevent us from being even more loveable. He can only do that if we let him. And so, the acts of sorrow for sin and confession of sin that we make in confession release the act of sacramental absolution. Absolution means that we are invaded once more by the fullness of grace we received at baptism. Absolution re-inserts us into the crucified and risen Lord. Absolution’s effect is the grace of immediate and total liberation from sin and the gift of healing of the spiritual wounds our sins have caused. Absolution, because it can be received again and again, is a testimony to the persevering and undying love of Christ for each soul. It is also a testimony to our own persistent desire to love him back.
The sacrament of reconciliation can be a life-changing event, making us to some extent the new man St. Paul became or the new woman the adulteress in the Gospel became. It is up to us to let those words of God in Isaiah come true also for us: “See, I am doing a new deed, even now it comes to light; can you not see it?” Behold, he makes all things new!