God’s mercy seems to explode out of the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, showing He is the relentless source of life and mercy.
The first reading tells us that it was 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…” This of course refers to the Lord opening the sea so that the Israelites could come out of slavery in Egypt and head for the Promised Land.
“See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers … for I put water 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.”
Just as the Israelites celebrated their victory in crossing the Jordan, grateful to God for their newfound freedom, they encountered new challenges, such as lack of food and water. When they turned to their God, He gave them water to drink and manna and quail to eat. God pours out on the Israelites mercy upon mercy.
In our own lives, when we encounter weakness from others or ourselves and we turn to God, He does something new. He gives us the grace to repent and begin afresh. His mercy cleanses our consciences, and we experience new energy and incredible peace.
Why does God do this? Isaiah tells us God did it so that the people He formed “might announce my praise.” He cleanses us from sin with His mercy so that we might witness His merciful goodness to others, so that they, too, can be saved.
The responsorial psalm celebrates God’s faithfulness. “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” This psalm celebrates God’s mercy in returning the exiles to Jerusalem after they had been taken into captivity. “…When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing.”
Isn’t it true that when we sin, we put ourselves in captivity to sin, and we become forlorn and sad? However, God comes to our rescue and offers us the gift of repentance followed by His gift of mercy. Then our mouths are “filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing.”
St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians celebrates God’s mercy: “I have come to rate all as loss in the light of the surpassing knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ. For His sake I have forfeited everything; I have accounted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth and I may be in Him.”
Here Paul refers to the explosion of mercy in his heart, thanks to St. Stephen, who when stoned to death, offered a prayer of forgiveness to his killers. That haunted Paul, who was on his way to persecute Christians. What Stephen gave to Paul caused such agony in him that Christ came to his rescue on the way to Damascus. That gift of mercy was Christ’s downpayment to Paul for a lifetime of witnessing God’s mercy to the Gentiles. The bigger the sin, the greater is God’s mercy.
This sets up the Gospel in which the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery and make her stand before everyone while they attempt to shame her and test Jesus. He first enters into powerful silence, and then says: “Let the one among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her.”
One by one the guilty begin to slink away, hoping to get out of earshot before Jesus makes their sins public. He then says: “Woman, where did they all disappear to? Has no one condemned you?” When she answers in the negative, Jesus says: “Nor do I condemn you. You may go. But from now on, avoid this sin.”
I think our Catholic Church can learn a sobering lesson from Jesus in the Gospel. For the past several years we have heard a lot of justified anger against priests who have abused and bishops who have not disciplined those priests. I think that this anger is justified.
We also need to focus on the victims of abuse. Today the Church has available so many gifts for healing these wounds. We need to focus on using these gifts to bring these victims the relief they deserve.
However we need to do more.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Let the one among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone…” This is the season of Lent, a penitential season, and I see very few people say: “As we point our finger at others and vent our anger at them, let us not forget to repent of our own sins. It will make our anger far more credible.”
The fourth-century desert monk Macarius was to meet with two other monks at 9 a.m. where two paths from the monastery met. When he was not on time, one of the monks complained: “Where is Macarius? He is always late.”
They then looked down the hillside and saw Macarius coming up the hill dragging a sack of rocks! One monk exclaimed: “Macarius, what do you have in that sack?” Macarius said: “I thought if I was going to pass discernment on a fellow monk, I would bring my sins along!”
A universal spirit of repentance would go a long way in healing our Church today.