Sunday Sermon for March 17, 2013, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C
Readings: Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11
In the readings today we see a common theme which is summarized nicely by St. Paul’s statement at the end of the second reading: “forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead.” For the Hebrew people, this call to look forward was a difficult one because they are defined as a people by what happened at the time of the Exodus. Isaiah even brings this point forward at beginning the passage with a reminder of the power God demonstrated at the Red Sea. The freedom the people had from the slavery in Egypt and their choosing of the Lord to be their God is critical to their identity.
One point to understand about the nature of religion is that it always goes back to its origin. As Catholics we look to the events of the Passion, death and resurrection of our Lord as the genesis of our faith. For this reason, we offer the sacrifice of Jesus and celebrate His death and resurrection at every Mass that is offered. Imagine if the Lord said that we were supposed to forget all of that because He is going to do something new. That is exactly what He did with regard to the Hebrew people. In other words, they were to have a new identity which would require letting go of the way they had understood themselves in relation to God and one another for over a thousand years when Isaiah wrote these words.
What is important to understand is that God was not rejecting them; instead, He was calling them to something greater and more profound. He was not rejecting them as His people, but He was calling them to be His children. This meant that they would have to give up the more distant and objective relationship with God in order to enter into a more intimate and subjective relationship with God. They only knew themselves as the People of God and they understood the privilege that was theirs in having this title. To give it up seemed counter intuitive.
God said through Isaiah that He would make a way in the desert and make rivers in the wasteland. If we see the desert and the wasteland as meaning the Gentiles rather than as geographic locations, God has indeed changed these places completely and now the rivers of grace flow through them and the way to Heaven if found in them as well. This is precisely why St. Paul can say that he considers everything of the past to be as rubbish in order that he might gain Christ.
For us as God’s children, the Lord continues to do new things as well; He continues to make ways in the desert and rivers in the wasteland. If we look at the Gospel reading today, we can say that sin is what is in the past and God wants us to forget our sins. When we come to confession with a mortal sin on our soul, the soul is like a wasteland. The rivers of grace have dried up and it is no longer the dwelling place of God. Therefore, it has become uninhabitable, a desert or a wasteland.
In the Gospel reading we see our Lord forgiving the woman who was caught in adultery; in this act of forgiveness she became a new creation. The same is true for us. When we confess our sins and the Lord forgives us, the sins are removed from our souls, grace is restored and the Holy Trinity makes His dwelling within us once again. The desert is watered with grace and the wasteland becomes the Temple of the Living God.
While we can certainly recall the fact that we sinned against the Lord, God wants us to look forward, not backward. What good is it to look at our past sins, especially if God has forgiven them? If they have been forgiven, they are gone. To keep looking back and holding on to the sin is, essentially, a rejection of God’s forgiveness. If we want to go to Heaven, we need to turn in that direction and move forward. You cannot get to Canada if your car is aimed toward Mexico.
As children of God who are reconciled with our Father through the forgiveness of our sins, we need to let go of our past and the way(s) we defined ourselves in our sinfulness. We need to leave that lifestyle and the sins in the past and we need to define ourselves by who we are in God through Jesus Christ. We are a new creation, children of God, heirs of Heaven, partakers in the Divine Nature, and much more. Seen this way, we can say with St. Paul that we want to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.