5th Sunday of Lent
This past weekend (March 16-17), I was taking part in the provincial chapter (see an earlier post, below). I did "escape" while we were free on Saturday afternoon and evening and celebrate Mass for Troop 40 on their camping trip, but that homily had not a word written down beyond the Scripture texts. So--here's one for the same set of readings from 9 years back.
March 28, 2004
Is 43: 16-21
Nativity, Brandon, Fla.
“See, I am doing something new! In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers” (Is 43: 19).
Our 1st reading, a prophecy from the book of Isaiah, refers to the glorious moment of Israel’s history when the Lord “opened a way in the sea” and allowed the Hebrews to cross in safety, then drowned Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen and powerful army when they followed in pursuit. For anyone who’s seen The Ten Commandments, the image of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Hebrews marching across, the waters swallowing up the Egyptians must be indelible. This exodus was a great event, a foundational event, a defining event of God’s people, like the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, the Union victory at Gettysburg, the March on Washington in our own history. To this day the Jewish celebration of Passover every spring commemorates and relives, in what we might call sacramental form, the deliverance of their people from Egypt, God’s decisive victory over their oppressors.
But Isaiah quotes the Lord YHWH as telling the Israelites to forget about past heroics, for he’s about to do something new and equally wondrous. This new wonder will, in a sense, be the opposite of the past miracle. Instead of clearing water out of their path: “In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people I formed for myself” (43:20-21). YHWH is about to deliver his people from their oppression once again, once more bring them back to the Promised Land from a long exile. As punishment for their sins the Jews have been in their Babylonian Captivity for 40, 50 years—forced into exile in Babylon, whose ruins are near modern Baghdad. We’ve all seen TV film of the Iraqi desert landscape. Now God is about to use the might of Persia to destroy Babylon and let his people go home thru that barren desert. But for them it won’t be barren. He will make it spring to life as a safe route for them, just as the Red Sea once was. And they shall be saved anew, formed again as his beloved, chosen people, “that they might announce [his] praise” (43:21).
Water—how necessary, how life-giving. It can make a desert bloom in the ordinary cycle of nature, when some wasteland gets its little bit of seasonal rain, or by the art of man, like Palm Springs. During Lent our catechumens anticipate the saving water of Baptism, and believers recall their Baptism and turn again toward the Lord in repentance for their post-baptismal sins. We still need the mercy of God to wash over us.
And God’s mercy is ever ready to carry out some new marvel of salvation. In Jesus Christ God said to all mankind, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” We see an example of that in today’s gospel, when Jesus doesn’t condemn a sinful woman even tho the Law of Moses would do so. He protects her from the blood mob and sends her on her way with a new start in her spiritual life: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11). All of us got a new spiritual start at Baptism; to all of us a renewal is offered repeatedly in Reconciliation (Penance). Unfortunately, we aren’t able to put entirely into practice what Jesus tells us: “sin no more.” We try, we fail, as we suppose the woman in the story did—tho we hope henceforward she avoided at least the mortal sin of adultery.
The mercy of God, aptly symbolized by water, is always available to us. But it is contingent upon a change of heart, an intention of sinning no more. This is perhaps what so clearly defines Catholicism in contemporary culture: we still identify right and wrong, virtue and sin. We still condemn sinful behavior and urge people to change. So much of the society we live in holds to an anything-goes morality, live and let live, tolerance and understanding and non-judgment. That’s what drives the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision mandating homosexual marriage and those public officials promoting it in Massachusetts and elsewhere: all sexual behavior between consenting adults is equal. One dare not say it’s contrary to God’s created order, it’s harmful to society, it’s sinful. But Christ does say certain behavior is sinful and we must change: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
Our lives when they’re ruled by sin are barren, desert-like. When will a better life come to Israelis and Arabs? When both put aside their hatred, their greed, their pride, their sin. When will my life get better? When I give it over to Jesus and seek his will in my life rather than insisting on my own way and stop running down people who’re in my way. Is there some behavior in my life that I persist in justifying to myself, tho the word of God or the teaching of Christ’s Church tells me it’s wrong? The water of mercy, of God’s peace, will come upon me and make me feel alive inside and even out, only when I humble myself before him, as the woman in the gospel was humbled before Jesus. St. Paul describes his experience of that in today’s 2d reading, how his acceptance of the grace of Christ Jesus led him to put aside his whole previous way of thinking and acting and striving to get ahead: all that was a pile of rubbish (the Greek word he uses means “manure,” to use a word I can say in the pulpit); all that matters now is Paul’s faith and knowledge of Jesus and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:8-10). Paul has found the life-giving water of God’s mercy and confessed his sins. The same opportunity is ours, because God never ceases to do new wonders, to form us into a people for himself, that we might announce his praise.