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 of Advent: Our Lady of the Advent

our lady of millenium

MI 5:1-4a; PS 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; HEB 10:5-10; LK 1:39-45

In the last Sunday before Christmas, the liturgy turns to Mary.  We look forward to Christ’s coming.  Through Advent we have prepared for his coming.  Now we look for the perfect preparation, in the heart of Mary.

The Offertory Prayer asks the Holy Spirit to “sanctify these gifts laid upon your altar, just as he filled with his power the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”  The opening prayer is the Angelus prayer: “pour forth . . your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel . . . .”

The Preface for Masses of Advent says, “the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling.”  Her heart is the image of Advent longing and preparation.  We turn this weekend to Our Lady of the Advent.


The Entrance Antiphon sets the theme.  Rorate coeli: “drop down dew from above, you heavens; and let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior” (Is 45:8)

There are two images here, corresponding to Christ’s two births.  His first birth is heavenly: he is the divine Son of God, born among “the clouds”.  His second birth, at Christmas, is from the earth: “let the earth be opened.”

Mary is the earth; our hearts are the earth, where the divine Word is planted.  We must be opened up, and so let him be born in us.  Yet the mystery of Mary is the mystery of grace.  She does not make Christ appear.  She receives him from like dew from above.


And so the Old Testament reading, from Micah, emphasizes the two poles.  “You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”  It is not by Mary’s might that Christ is born from her.  She is little.  In fact, he is born in her only because she is little enough to receive him.

He is the strong one: “He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock, by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God. . . . His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.”

We wait.  We look forward.  We prepare.  But our preparation is not to be the great doers, but to be waiting, looking forward – to let him be our peace.  Come, Lord Jesus!


The Gospel is Luke’s Gospel of the pregnant Mary, Our Lady of the Advent: “Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste . . . where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” prophesies, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Mary is the earth that brings forth the Savior.  She is blessed, because Emmanuel is with her.

“Blessed are you,” says the Spirit-filled Elizabeth, “who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”  Later in Luke’s Gospel, a woman will mistake Mary’s dignity as being merely physical: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts which you sucked.”  Jesus agrees – the Greek includes “yea” – but goes deeper: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”

That is the true blessedness of Mary, the blessedness to which we aspire: to be the earth that receives the dew from above, to hear the word and keep it – to believe that what was spoken to us by the Lord would be fulfilled.

That is the way of Advent: to look forward with trust in the promise, to prepare by waiting for him to be our peace – in his coming at Christmas, his coming at the end of time, his daily comings.  Come, Lord Jesus!


But there is a second, external kind of preparation tied to that primary, internal one.  Mary went with haste to help Elizabeth, with her words and, we assume, with her hands.

Our Epistle is from Hebrews.  It focuses on the Incarnation.  Its central message says, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘. . . a body you prepared for me . . . I come to do your will, O God.’ . . .  By this ‘will’ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Christ came, not merely to be our ritual, not merely to be our Sunday or holiday observance, but to claim our entire lives.  He came not for the moment of Christmas, but for the entirety of a human life.  We welcome him, too, by consecrating our lives to him.  We join Mary in making our every moment revolve around his coming.

In what ways do you pray, “Come, Lord Jesus”?