Homily at Lenten Penance Service
March 28, 2006
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Hebrews 10:22-25; John 8:1-11 – Jesus and the woman taken in adultery)
So just what is this business of reconciliation and penance really all about? What should we be focusing our prayer on?
Let me begin by saying what it is not about. It’s not about our sins. You know, there are people – some of them canonized – who go about making protestations about the greatness of their sins. I think that’s just one more seductive way of making me the center of the universe. It’s an old game in the spiritual life. If I can’t be great at anything else, at least I can make myself a great sinner! It’s all about me, me, me.
No, the truth is that we’re all really small change when it comes to sin; minor leaguers. Old hat. Probably haven’t invented a new one for ages. . .
To appreciate what the process of reconciliation is all about, I’d suggest we need to look in two directions. We need to go back to the origins of the process – and then look to where it’s all heading, to its final fruit.
Reconciliation doesn’t start with us, it starts in the heart of our God. Remember, John tells us: it’s not as if we first loved God, no, it’s God who first loved us. We see it modeled in the behavior of Jesus as he is confronted by his adversaries. His total focus is on the woman, the human being in front of him.
And it’s not romanticized or sentimental. He doesn’t say, “Oh, you poor thing.” No, it’s very matter-of-fact, it has the ring of truth. You sinned. I’m fully aware of that. And I still love you. You are still lovable if you will allow yourself to be loved. “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Neither do I condemn you.”
It’s wholly in line with the image of God in all the prophets. “His anger lasts but a moment; his fidelity is forever.” God has entered into a covenant with us and it will never be broken. The Psalmist has God getting angry with us; and even punishing us for a while; but with it all there is always that continuing love and faithfulness which cannot be broken. It’s the same impulse behind the image of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Long before the son comes to his senses as he feeds slop to the pigs, the father has been out at the edge of his property everyday longing for his return. God’s love always precedes ours, empowering us to love.
Jesus’s mission was always one of revelation: to reveal what his Father was really all about. And here he reveals the Father in a setting in which the religious leaders of the people, the righteous ones, were proclaiming a violent distortion of God. They were inciting the crowd to stone this woman to death. In the name of religion. Can we even in our richest imagination grasp even remotely what such an act must be like?
Jesus’s proclamation of forgiveness was a revolutionary action in the religious culture of his time. He was not just a sentimental wimp; he was taking on the powers that controlled the life of the people.
So that’s where reconciliation originates. And then where is it headed? Where does it finally reach its fruition, the term of the dynamic?
In the gospel story Jesus tells the woman, “Go and sin no more.” That’s enough for that moment. But from the rest of the scriptures we know that it’s not enough that after being received in contrition we simply stop sinning. Paul tells us that because we know what it means to be forgiven we are to become forgivers. To us has been given the ministry of reconciliation. He uses the image of the alien, of those who were far off. We are to receive the aliens in our midst because we were once aliens ourselves. If we appreciate what the Lord has done in reaching out for us when we were alienated, how can we withhold our acceptance from anyone?
Like Jesus in his day we too live in a culture that is challenged by the Gospel. We live in a climate of hostility. Our society does not believe in forgiveness and reconciliation.
I was reading this morning of a report compiled about peoples’ attitudes toward torture. The question was: is torture ever permissible? And sad to say, beyond the high numbers of people in our society who are ready to condone torture, it turns out that Catholics – our brothers and sisters – score significantly higher than the general population.
And just listen to voices being raised in a very serious public issue of our day: the way we will treat undocumented aliens. Listen behind the nice words about protecting our way of life. We are ready to use them for our economic gain. As long as ‘they’ are willing to do the work that no citizen will do for the minimal wages they get, fine. But when that means our public monies will be used to take care of their health, or education, or housing, or if they wind up winning a job a real American wanted, then let’s drive them out – even if they’ve lived in the US for 20 or 30 years and even paid taxes -- let’s build a fence to keep them where they ‘belong.’
We will know that the process of reconciliation has really ‘worked’ when out hearts have become as compassionate as the heart of our God. When I am not the center of my consciousness, when my neighbor is. When we no longer look at anyone as ‘alien’ or stranger because we have accepted our Father’s own view of us. As children loved with an eternal love.