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.


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.


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.


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?

Fourth Sunday: More on the Gospel of Repentance

Life has been really hectic, so this week, my reflection on the Sunday readings comes the day after.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 18:15-20; PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 COR 7:32-35; MK 1:21-28

Last Sunday we saw the first appearance of Jesus in Mark’s “roaring, rushing” Gospel.  Jesus appears saying, “repent!”  The disciples follow.  In Mark, everything is direct and to the point.

This week we read the very next verses of Mark, chapter 1, and the rush continues.  “Immediately” (that’s one of Mark’s favorite words) after Peter and Andrew, James and John join him, Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum, and teaches with authority.  And immediately a demon recognizes him, and Jesus silences him.

It’s all the more dramatic if you have a red-letter Bible (where the words of Jesus are in red).  Jesus’s first words (last week) are “repent and believe.”  His second words (also last week) are “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  And his third words (this week) are to the demon: “be silent and come out of him!”

“I know who you are!”  “Be silent!”  That’s a strange way to open the Gospel.  Right from the start Jesus is preventing those who would reveal who he “really is.”


There are various ways to answer the classic question, why does Jesus silence those who know him?  (He does it to demons, those cured, those who see him transfigured, etc.)  Here, let us focus on our readings: how does the Bible, read liturgically, answer our question?

First, notice that this whole Gospel reading is about his “teaching with authority” – that phrase precedes and follows the silencing of the demon.  (Mark likes this structure; I think scholars call it a “sandwich.”)

The first time, he is teaching in the synagogue: teaching them the meaning of the Old Testament, teaching them the way of life of God’s people.  The second time, “He commands even the unclean spirits”: he conquers the unclean spirits.

Putting this together with last week’s reading, we could say, Jesus is talking to them about repentance.  In a sense, the way Mark sets things out, we might say that Jesus doesn’t want to talk about himself until he has talked about us.

Profession of faith is the culmination of Mark’s Gospel: at the Cross, the Centurion is the first to fully profess that Jesus is “the Son of God.”  But that profession can only go with a full understanding of its moral implications.  First, its implications for Jesus: who he is cannot be separated from his willingness to die.

But also its implications for us: who he is should not “get in the way of” our seeing that he calls us to repentance.  To the contrary, the whole point of his coming is to change us.  Beware the one who says “Lord, Lord” but doesn’t embrace the moral transformation (symbolized by his synagogue preaching and his victory over demons) that that profession really entails.


The other two readings take us in this direction.  The reading from Deuteronomy simply underlines the importance of “a prophet like you”: “to him you shall listen” – whereas it seems the people have a hard time listening to the unmediated word of God.

Reading this back into the Gospel, it’s important to encounter Jesus as man – even as “moral teacher.”  Yes, we must worship him.  But that can’t mean “faith alone,” can’t mean that we profess him as Lord but ignore his call on our life.

Rather, we can only understand why God becomes man, and what his salvation really means, if we see that he comes to walk as a man – in righteousness, even to death – and that he comes to teach men to be men, to proclaim a Gospel of repentance.

Put another way, beware orthodoxy without love, people who give the right “doctrinal” answer but don’t care about living it out authentically.  The demons do that!  Not everyone whose doctrine is orthodox is a true Christian, or a good teacher.


And that means, too, living it out practically.  Our second reading is from 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s discourse on marriage and celibacy.  Here, Paul would spare us the “distractions” of marriage.  It’s a funny pairing with this Gospel.

But read it this way: Paul’s advice isn’t about orthodoxy.  It’s (dare I use the word) “pastoral.”  You don’t have to be celibate.  But Paul says, look, get beyond the rules, and think about how you can really pursue “the things of the Lord,” not “the things of the world.”

Some of us try to do that in marriage – fine! says Paul.  But don’t get so stuck on having professed the right rules that you miss the deeper importance of following with your whole heart.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”  This is the good news.

Are there any ways that you are more worried about “being right” (like the demon in our Gospel) than with following Christ with your whole heart?

Third Sunday: The Gospel of Repentance

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JON 3:1-5, 10; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 COR 7:29-31; MK 1:14-20

This week we return to the Gospel of Mark – and how classically Mark it is.  We are in verse 14 of this roaring, rushing Gospel.  Already we have met John baptizing in the wilderness; Jesus has been baptized; he has gone into the wilderness to battle (for just one verse, in Mark) with the devil; and John has been arrested.  A roaring, rushing Gospel!

And now we come to Jesus’s first words in Mark’s account: “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”  Twice we have the word “Gospel”: good news, a happy message.

But this happy message is a bit unsettling: a lion’s roar.  “This is the time of fulfillment” – what does that mean?  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  Exciting, but where is this leading?  “Repent!”

Here is the key word, the same word John the Baptist had proclaimed, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance,” in verse 4.  This explains “the time of fulfillment”: now is the time of repentance, the time of conversion.  This explains “The kingdom of God is at hand”: now we will change our behavior, live as if God is king.  This explains, even, the good news: the good news is repentance, a change of heart.

The Greek metanoia, you probably know, means “a change of mind,” a new way of thinking, a new attitude.  The Latin poenitentia adds an important insight: the pain, poena, of change.


But the real key is not in linguistics, it’s in the story.  Immediately, in the roar of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, then James and John.  “They abandoned their nets and followed him.”  “They left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.”

Repentance means leaving the old way of life, dropping it right where it lays, and following Jesus.  We can work back the other way.  If the good news is repentance, it’s also true that repentance means recognizing the good news: recognizing that Jesus is worth leaving everything for.  Repentance means acknowledging him as our king, accepting the Lordship of God, going his way, not ours: the kingdom of God is at hand.  There are lots of ways to fill this out – it means accepting, for example, God’s wisdom expressed in the nature of things – but most immediately, most roaringly, it means dropping our nets and following Jesus as our king.  Mark’s theme is always, let’s not get distracted: this is about following Jesus.

That is “the time of fulfillment”: the time when following Jesus becomes everything.  That’s the good news.


Notice too, of course, that it immediately turns also to preaching the good news, evangelization.  If we accept Jesus as king, we go forth to extend his kingdom – to extend the good news of dropping everything to follow the good king.  “I will make you fishers of men.”


That’s the theme, put boldly, in our short reading from Jonah.  The children’s story is fun, where Jonah is all about getting swallowed by a whale.  But that’s just a side issue in the real storyline of Jonah: God calls him to go forth and preach the gospel of repentance.  His reluctance – which leads, among other things, to getting swallowed by a whale – just shows us what a radical repentance that gospel calls us to undertake.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” is Jonah’s good news.  This is the drama of the good news: it’s good news because the opposite is bad news.  Not to follow Jesus, to remain in our old ways, is destruction, annihilation – not because God imposes nastiness on an otherwise happy Nineveh, but because without Jesus we are lost.

So they “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . . They turned from their evil way.”  That is the good news of repentance: it looks a little rough, and that’s often the point: we are so inclined to sit in our boats and miss the One Necessary Thing that the call to follow Jesus feels like pain, poenitentia.  But he calls us to the gospel, to freedom from the emptiness that is life without him.


And that is the meaning, too, of our reading from First Corinthians: “the world in its present form is passing away.”  That’s not an imposition: all earthly splendor fades.  It just does.  When Paul calls “those rejoicing” to act “as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully,” it’s not that he’s tearing them away from joy.  He’s tearing them away from what cannot satisfy, and calling them to the good news.

But the good news means repentance, a change, a tearing away, from emptiness to fullness of life.

Are there parts of your life where it’s hard to see how repentance, following Jesus, is good news?