Liberation from our Past

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

IS 43:16-21; PS 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; PHIL 3:8-14; JN 8:1-11

Easter is but two weeks away. And as we look forward to Easter – and realize that Lent is all about looking forward to Easter – this Sunday’s readings remind us that the Christian life is about looking forward, not back.

Repentance is such a different thing depending which way we are looking. Looking back, repentance would be about beating ourselves up. Looking forward, repentance is about transformation, on the way to transfiguration and resurrection. So too Confession.

And I have been pondering the eschatological aspect of the Mass: “until you come again,” “a pledge of future glory,” “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Christ who died prepares us to meet him face to face.

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This is the key to our Gospel reading this week, the woman caught in adultery. There is no question here (any more than in Pope Francis’s comment, “if he has repented, who am I to judge?”) of remaining in sin. Jesus concludes, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

The question is whether we get stuck in the past. Jesus “bent down and wrote on the ground.” One classic interpretation is that, like writing in the sand, our past sins can be wiped away at a stroke by the hand of Jesus – and we can move forward.

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There is also, of course, an important teaching in this reading against judgment: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” But again, Jesus is looking ahead.

The key is given in the Epistle, from Philippians. The reading concludes, “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Straining forward.

But this theme runs through the whole reading.

Watch how he plays with the word “possess”: “I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sister, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.”

First, there is the tension between “hope that I may possess” and “I do not consider myself to have taken possession.” Christian hope doesn’t mean we think we are perfect – but nor does it mean we give up on being perfect. It means we hope we are on the path to perfection. Not that we are without sin, and ready to condemn those who sin, but that we strive toward the goal.

Second, there is the tension between “that I may possess” and “I have indeed been taken possession of [or, taken hold of]by Christ Jesus.” Again, Christian righteousness is not about thinking we’re perfect – but about thinking he is perfect, and the author of our perfection. We hope because we know he can do it.

And so hope rests on faith: “not having any righteousness of my own based on the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” Faith is essential: not because by it we are already perfect, but because by faith we discover the power that can make us perfect: Jesus who is our goal, and who transfigures us so that we can enter into union with him.

Those who would condemn the sinner don’t realize that life is about transformation. We pray for her transformation just as we pray for ours, trusting that all the strength is in Christ. Just as he died and rose from the dead, so too he can bring life to our souls dead in sin.

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Our first reading, from Isaiah, returns us to the Lenten image of Israel in the desert. He begins with the Exodus: “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise.”

But then, after calling to mind God’s work in the past, the prophet says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” The point of those stories of long ago is not to look back, but to look forward. Christ is working our Exodus, this Lent, our passage through the desert to the promised land.

“For I put waters in the desert, and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.”

God has not forgotten us. He has not left us to how we were. The joy of the Gospel is that Christ is working transformation in us, not leaving us as we were but working a new work in us.

How are you stuck in the past? How can Christ liberate you?

eric.m.johnston

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