Reflection for the Vigil of the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 12, 2016

Reading: John 8:1-11

By Sister Cecilia Olson, OSB

Sister Cecilia OlsonWe treasure our ability to remember. Our hearts ache for someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimers. Yet when we encounter God’s Word, not only in this Gospel, but throughout Scripture, we discover a God who doesn’t seem to remember. The evidence consistently points to a God who keeps forgetting! And it’s not just forgetting little things  – it’s big things like breaking promises, cheating, squandering one’s inheritance, unfaithfulness. But then, as we open ourselves more and more to the Scriptures, we come to recognize that it’s not a memory problem at all, but actually something much more baffling - God chooses to forget!  Instead of focusing on our failures, God simply longs to lift us up and out of the mud and mire we’ve created in our lives.  This new awareness is quite comforting at first, but then it can become quite disturbing as we come to terms with the fact that we have promised to imitate this God of infinite mercy in our own lives.

It’s not difficult to find ourselves in this Gospel. We begin with the Pharisees. No doubt we each can recall a time when we felt a hint of satisfaction that “they got what they deserved,” or a time when we focused on the speck in another’s eye, blind to the log in our own, or a time we stubbornly held on to our preconceived judgments and closed our ears to a differing opinion. And while we may have short memories around our personal failures, we often choose to cling to the memories of others' failures, especially their failures to us. If we give permission to these memories, nursing the hurts and slights, they begin to accumulate in our memory bank gradually becoming an arsenal of little pebbles that can form calluses on the heart. The longer we hold on, the heavier the arsenal becomes, weighing down our spirit, eroding and corroding our ability to live as women who have promised to be guided by the Gospel. 

Sometimes we may find ourselves as the shamed woman trembling at Jesus’ feet. While we may not have had to endure public humiliation, it is likely that we have dealt with inner humiliations – times when we knew we had missed the mark and settled for being less than the person we desire to be. We wanted to hide that truth from others and even from ourselves. 

The most difficult test in this Gospel is asking if we can find ourselves as Jesus. He addresses the frightened woman with no hint of harshness or condemnation. He doesn’t ask her to say an act of contrition or give her a penance. He simply invites her to change. And yet, while Jesus is gentle with the woman, He shows no hesitancy in confronting the deceitfulness of the Pharisees.  Both encounters are challenging to the woman, to the Pharisees and to you and me.

Recently I read a book entitled Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The author, Bryan Stevenson, is a lawyer who represents the disenfranchised, the incarcerated and those on death row. He has worked tirelessly to bring compassion into the American justice system. In his book, he writes: “Each of us is more than the worse thing we’ve done.”  These words echo Jesus’ approach to every person that carried the stigma of sinner. He didn’t deny the sin, but neither did he denigrate or humiliate. Jesus came to liberate us from fear and guilt and gives us the ongoing possibility of change and new life. 

Anthony DeMello writes a wonderful story about God’s memory. He tells of an old woman in a village who was said to be receiving divine apparitions. The local priest demanded proof of their authenticity. “When God next appears to you,” he said, “ask Him to tell you my sins, which are known to Him alone. That should be evidence enough.” The woman returned a month later and the priest asked if God had appeared to her again. She said “Yes, God did appear to me.”  "And what did God say?” demanded the skeptical priest. “God said: “Tell your priest I have forgotten his sins.”

In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has called for the Church to stir up “a revolution of tenderness.” His image of the Church as a field hospital with doors open to whoever knocks in search of help mirrors the Christ who reached out to touch the bodies and the souls of the outcast and shunned. In his most recent book The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis writes: “The fragility of our era is this: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption, for a hand to raise you up, for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love, to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.”

As we continue our Lenten journey to the Easter Triduum and a renewal of our baptismal commitment to put on Christ, may we pursue a memory of mercy - a memory that chooses to forget rather than brooding and wasting energy mulling over injuries; a memory that as St. Benedict reminds us, does not “act in anger or nurse a grudge.” May we have a memory of mercy that recognizes God’s desire to free us from the chains of living in the failures of our past and in turn calls us to freeing others to move on from the failures of their past. If God never gives up on us, then neither can we give up -- on ourselves, on one another, on our community, our Church, our world.  Never despairing of God’s mercy, may we not cast stones that tear down, but be living stones that build up the Body of Christ in a “revolution of tenderness.”