The God Who Saves Those Who Hope in Him, 5th Monday of Lent, April 3, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent
25th Anniversary of the Definitive Awareness of My Priestly Calling
April 3, 2017
Dan 13:1-9.15-17.19-30.33-62, Ps 23, Jn 8:1-11

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today’s powerful readings of the rescue of people from stoning through accusations of adultery can and ought to be looked at four different levels: the literal sense in which God rescued the innocent Susanna and the adulterous woman; the way that God similarly rescues us, whether guilty or innocent; the way that these actions point to the betrayal Jesus by the “elders” whose consciences had been corrupted; and the way that God wants to transform us to have a similar care for those facing accusation, trial and even death.
  • Let’s begin with the literal sense of these passages, which requires the majority of our attention since they are the basis for the others. In the first reading, we see the utter corruption of two old men — judges of the people chosen to exact justice — in the story of Susanna. The opposite of love is not hatred but lust, and in contrast to the beauty of self-giving love we see today the real hideousness of rapacious iniquity. Either these judges would assassinate her soul through adultery or they would have her tried and killed by a false accusation if she didn’t succumb to their advances. While the desires of the flesh may attenuate over time, the lust for power, for control, for satisfying the insatiable desires of a corrupt heart can actually grow, as the conscience gets more and more deadened, such that it’s no longer a crime of the flesh but of calculation, using one’s prestige and office to do evil rather than good, to do injustice rather than implement justice. Daniel says that they “suppressed their consciences. They would not allow their eyes to look to heaven [in prayer], and did not keep in mind just judgment.” They had been thoroughly corrupted and their sins against the sixth commandment led, as they routinely do, to sins against the eighth, against the fifth and obviously against the first.
  • In the Gospel we see similar wickedness. Another set of elders with a reputation for being religious and fair brought to Jesus a woman caught in the very act of adultery, using her to make a point, as a pawn, for their own lust for power. Two things stick out initially about their catching her and bringing her to Jesus. First, how did they catch her in the very act of adultery unless their eyes were already on her? And how come they didn’t bring the guy who was her partner in sin, but just her? Is it possibly because they excused the male because they themselves had often committed adultery with this woman in their own hearts? They brought her before Jesus to try to entrap him with the question as to whether she should be stoned in accordance with the law of Moses. If Jesus had replied, “No,” he would be setting himself up against the Mosaic Law and they could use that against him with faithful Jews. If he said, “Yes,” not only would he lose the support of the sinners he had come to call, save and reconcile, but he would put himself against the Roman authorities who had taken to themselves the sole authority to implement capital punishment. In their sinfulness, they were using her as a pawn to try to bring down Jesus.
  • But God rescued each of them. Susanna said to herself, “I am completely trapped. If I yield, it will be my death; if I refuse, I cannot escape your power. Yet it is better for me to fall into your power without guilt than to sin before the Lord.” The early saints said that it was better to die than to sin. Susanna entrusted herself to God. When she was brought to trial and heard the false accusations that brought with them the death penalty, she prayed, “O eternal God, you know what is hidden and are aware of all things before they come to be: you know that they have testified falsely against me.  Here I am about to die, though I have done none of the things with which these wicked men have charged me.” And her trust in God would not be in vain. As we heard in the Responsorial Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd. … Even though I walk in the valley of darkness I fear no evil for you are with me with your rod and your staff to give me comfort.” The Good Shepherd responded by sending Daniel the Prophet, who at the risk of his own life — for the same lying elders easily could have accused him of being the “young man” whom they claimed to have seen Susanna with in her garden — courageously defended Susanna and helped to expose the evil men’s lies.
  • Daniel’s defense of Susannah, a woman falsely accused of adultery, is a foreshadowing of the way Jesus defended the woman actually caught in adultery in today’s Gospel. We don’t know if she was married, the man was married, or both were married to others, but Jesus was defending a guilty woman. Daniel’s response was one of justice and mercy. Jesus’ was as well, mercy toward the woman and justice toward her accusers. Jesus began his defense by writing on the ground twice. The Greek word employed, katagraphein, is the word used in legal settings for writing an indictment. Several saints say he was writing on the ground the sins of those with stones in their hands as he said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This was not denying that the woman had done evil, but reminding all her accusers to remember the planks in their own eyes as well. The men grasped that they, too, were sinners and that if they threw stones against the woman, those stones could turn into boomerangs to come back to hit them. The men didn’t have the humility to apologize. They just walked away, one by one, in their isolation, with the eldest, those who were probably more aware of the history of their sinfulness, leading the way. They had come together in wickedness to try to condemn both the woman and Jesus. They left in the solitude of sin, witnessing to their lack of communion with God and others. Then we get to most beautiful part of the Gospel: how Jesus heals and helps the woman. He wasn’t just going to leave her there without any broken bones, contusions, concussions, and black eyes from stones cast. That wasn’t adequate to his mercy. He said that no one was present any longer to condemn her and that he wasn’t condemning her either. He had come into the world, he told us in St. John’s Gospel, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him. And that’s what he wanted her to experience. He told her to go but from now not to sin any more. Jesus wasn’t soft on her sin of adultery. He wanted her free of it. But he offered her a totally second chance.
  • The second application is about the way Christ seeks to rescue us whether we’re in the condition of Susanna or the adulterous women, whether we’re in danger in this world or eschatologically. St. Paul would write in his letter to the Romans, “Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8). In other words, it would have been an incredible act of God’s mercy for him to take on our nature, enter our world and die out of love for us if we were all sinless like the Blessed Virgin. But the fact that he did all he did while we had chosen to separate ourselves from God by sin is all the more extraordinary. There’s obviously a larger point in both of these scenes. Throughout the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus in the New, especially through the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel, God’s covenantal relationship with his people was described as a marriage and the sin and infidelity of his people referred to as adultery. God doesn’t want us condemned because of our adultery against God in every sin we’ve committed, but at the same time he wants us to sin no more. Jesus doesn’t want us to be dragged by mobs to the temple area; rather he wants us to bring ourselves voluntarily to him in confession, from which he wants to heal us of our own accusations and strengthen us to go and sin no more. Jesus doesn’t want us to go to Hell. He wants us to follow him on the path of love and fidelity instead of lust and adultery. He wants us to recognize that he knows all our sins and writes them down, not on stone, but on sand, because when they’re forgiven he can wipe them away. But at the same time he also commands us out of love not to sin any more. And instead of picking up stones to throw against other sinners, even with the slingshots of our tongues, he wants us to use those stones to build sturdy bridges of communion with others. It’s in that experience of his mercy that he strengthens us both to defend  the innocent and reconcile the sinful. Today we see how he in his mercy saves both the innocent and the guilty, and along the way we see the terrible ugliness of evil contrasted with the tremendous beauty of God’s intervention.
  • The third application is to Jesus himself. These scenes were foreshadowings of the evil conspiring of both sets of chief priests, the elders, the scribes and Pharisees would conspire to betray the most innocent one of all, Jesus: specifically, the way that they would allow him to be murdered in order to advance their own lust to be in control of the relationship between us and God and between us and others. Their consciences were deadened and they no longer looked up to God. They used Jesus as a pawn in their own game for power with the Romans, thinking better for an innocent man to die than for them to lose political control and hope. But God the Father likewise rescued his Son, saving him from death by raising him to life on the third day. As the Letter to the Hebrews comments, “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (5:7). He was heard and saved and in that death and resurrection saved us all.
  • The fourth application is to how we are called to be God’s instruments in helping him save others, to respond to the gift of the Spirit as Daniel did, to raise up to defend the innocent and defend the rights of the guilty. In your work, Sisters, with those who are pregnant being tempted toward abortion, in many cases you’re dealing with those who are guilty, caught in fornication or adultery, and are being tempted from below or by various modern “elders” giving them advice under pressure to take the life of their children. In other circumstances, you’re dealing with those who have been raped, who are victims or trafficking or incest, or who have gotten pregnant in marriage but are not being pressured by their husbands to abort. Whatever the circumstances, you are called to the role of Daniel and Christ, to defend them from others who seek to do them and their child harm, to defend them from diabolical insinuations, to help them realize they’re not condemned and to respond not by sinning through abortion but sinning no more. We’re all called to this work of justice by our baptism and Confirmation. God wants to strengthen us to render that service.
  • Today I rejoice to celebrate the 25th anniversary of my receiving God’s definitive confirmation of my priestly vocation and despite the longest first reading of the year and the four points of this homily, I just want to mark the occasion by a few words of praise and gratitude to God. Last night as I was praying over these readings, I was looking for a “hook” to tie the experience to today’s word of God and the Lord brought into greater relief how his plans were to help me discover my vocation through a situation of rescuing another damsel in distress. The first seeds of my priestly vocation occurred when I was four. At daily Mass with my mother and my twin brother, I carefully watched our pastor, Fr. Jon Cantwell, devoutly pronounce the words of consecration. With a four year old’s sense of wonder, I was fascinated that God had come down from heaven to earth and was in our Church. I wished that I was tall enough to be able to climb up on top of the altar to peer into the chalice, because I wanted to see what Jesus’ blood looked like. Then I beheld Fr. Cantwell, who was 70 but frail, gingerly maneuver his way down the marble steps of the sanctuary to give Jesus to those who were fortunately old enough to be able to receive him. I remember saying to myself, “The priest must be the luckiest man in the whole world — capable of holding God in his fingertips and giving him to others.” I then watched Fr. Cantwell bring the ciborium to the tabernacle, located on the side altar in front of the pew where we were kneeling. He put the ciborium behind the veil, struggled to genuflect, shut the bronze tabernacle door and returned to the altar. My eyes, however, remained transfixed on Jesus behind the door. I prayed silently and simply, “Jesus, make me a priest so that I can give you to others like Fr. Cantwell!” Over the course of the next 18 years, that desire to become a priest in order to bring Christ to others never left me. Growing up, however, I also naturally developed many other aspirations — to become a husband and father, a catcher for the Red Sox, a professional boxer and tennis player, a medical doctor, an actor, a pro-life political kingmaker, a professor and more. Whenever in my more mature moments I pondered about the future, however, I would confess to myself and others that I believed God had already given me a strong priestly identity, which I took as a sign of a vocation.
  • But when I got to college, I was helped by a priest to realize a priestly vocation is actually a calling from God, not principally a desire to be a priest on the part of a young man, and I embarked on an arduous two-and-a-half year discernment process whether God was indeed calling me to be a priest. Even though I was praying by this point 2-3 hours a day, my prayer was atrophying, because my prayer was egocentric, focused on asking God, “What do you want of me, Lord?” Eventually, tired and frustrated, needing to apply to medical school, I read in the lives of the saints about the prayer of faith St. Benedict who would never simply pray, “Lord, the monks are starving; please send food!,” but would rather ask, “Lord, we’re hungry. At the end of Lauds, please leave warm buns and milk at the gate,” and then he would find them there afterward. So I decided to ask the Lord to give me an answer on a particular day, the first Friday of April in 1992. I had helped to start Eucharistic Adoration on first Fridays at the Catholic Student Center at Harvard and I was signed up for the 2-3 pm slot. I began a novena to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart to give me my answer at that time and the grace to accept it, whether he was, as I prayed at the time, calling me to be a “priest or a garbage collector.” At 1:45 pm on April 3, 1992, as I was preparing to leave my dorm room to go to pray at St. Paul’s in Cambridge, the phone rang. It was my younger sister, 17 at the time, sounding panicked. She was in Harvard Square. She had made an appointment with my brother Scot that afternoon to help her do her taxes, but Scot had forgotten, left her alone in Harvard Square and now she was on a pay phone calling me because she didn’t know the way to Mather House and was afraid because — I’ll never forget her words — “a bunch of goons here are checking out my ass.” She begged me to come to get her. I knew that there would be other people at adoration, and so I rushed to get her, take her back and track down my brother. It wasn’t exactly Jesus in the Temple area or Daniel defending Susanna, but my sister was grateful. I couldn’t find Scot and he returned about four. I spent that time with my sister. I missed the Holy Hour. My hopes were a little crushed.
  • As God would have it, at 5 pm that day I had spiritual direction with my director at the time, a layman who was the director of the Opus Dei center close to Harvard. It was during the preparation for the beatification of now St. Josemaria, which would take place six weeks later. I had been helping some of the members of Opus Dei in responding to the press attacks against St. Josemaria because of Opus Dei’s general fidelity to Church teaching in an age of dissent. The director told me that another numerary had said to him, “Roger would make such a great numerary” (lay celibate), but that he replied that anyone who wanted to be a priest as much as I did wasn’t called to be a numerary. He laughed about it, as did I, without my recognizing any larger significance. When I told him how disappointed I was that God didn’t adjust to my time plan, he told me that I was right to prioritize helping my sister and God would make sense of it. After meeting with him, I was alone in the Chapel and so I could speak out loud. I told Jesus in the Tabernacle that I was disappointed that after the novena, after two-and-a-half years of prayer, he was still yo-yoing me around. “How long, O Lord?,” I asked, channelling the psalms. I was complaining. He interiorly spoke to me and said, “Are you done yet?” Then he led me to realize that by this point he had helped me to grasp that I had a vocation to apostolic celibacy for the kingdom and that there really were just two options for me, the priesthood or lay celibacy as a member of Opus Dei, and that he had through the Director (for whom I had prayed as I do for all my spiritual directors to be a channel of the Holy Spirit for me) in his dual office had said that I didn’t have a vocation to be a numerary. Then the Lord interiorly whispered, “So, yes, I am indeed calling you to be a priest.” I was filled a joy and a peace and a confidence that has never left. I did ask him, however, “Why didn’t you answer when I had asked, during the Holy Hour?” The response I received was, “So that you wouldn’t think you’re in control in our relationship, because your priestly fruitfulness will be in your docility to my will for you and for your others.” He’s shown me that lesson many times since in my nearly 18 years as a priest. Today I reiterate my gratitude and do so publicly, and do so in the liturgy, where God knew I would be 25 years ago as he confirmed what he implanted in me as a young boy who grasped that the priest is the luckiest man in the universe.
  • Let’s finish by returning to the readings. At the end of the first reading, by far the longest of the entire liturgical year, we see that “the whole assembly cried aloud, blessing God who saves those who hope in him.” God indeed blesses those who hope in him! He’s blessed me, he’s blessed all of us, and he wants us together as his sacred “qahal” his “ekklesia,” his assembly, to cry out together in gratitude and help us become more attentive to the cries of others. That’s what we seek to do here at Mass in gratitude for all that the Lord has done to defend us from the just consequences of our sins and in supplication for others for whom Jesus is calling us to go out as their Daniels. Today the Lord Jesus, our Savior and Good Shepherd, reminds us that he is with us in every dark valley so that through us he can be with all those who are in distress. But he doesn’t allow us and them to stay in that dark valley. He leads us through the Lenten process of sincere repentance with his rod and his staff to the verdant pastures where he sets a table for us and makes our cup overflow. Now let us get ready for that Eucharistic feast!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
DN 13:1-19, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62

In Babylon there lived a man named Joakim,
who married a very beautiful and God-fearing woman, Susanna,
the daughter of Hilkiah;
her pious parents had trained their daughter
according to the law of Moses.
Joakim was very rich;
he had a garden near his house,
and the Jews had recourse to him often
because he was the most respected of them all.
That year, two elders of the people were appointed judges,
of whom the Lord said, “Wickedness has come out of Babylon:
from the elders who were to govern the people as judges.”
These men, to whom all brought their cases,
frequented the house of Joakim.
When the people left at noon,
Susanna used to enter her husband’s garden for a walk.
When the old men saw her enter every day for her walk,
they began to lust for her.
They suppressed their consciences;
they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven,
and did not keep in mind just judgments.
One day, while they were waiting for the right moment,
she entered the garden as usual, with two maids only.
She decided to bathe, for the weather was warm.
Nobody else was there except the two elders,
who had hidden themselves and were watching her.
“Bring me oil and soap,” she said to the maids,
“and shut the garden doors while I bathe.”
As soon as the maids had left,
the two old men got up and hurried to her.
“Look,” they said, “the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us;
give in to our desire, and lie with us.
If you refuse, we will testify against you
that you dismissed your maids because a young man was here with you.”
“I am completely trapped,” Susanna groaned.
“If I yield, it will be my death;
if I refuse, I cannot escape your power.
Yet it is better for me to fall into your power without guilt
than to sin before the Lord.”
Then Susanna shrieked, and the old men also shouted at her,
as one of them ran to open the garden doors.
When the people in the house heard the cries from the garden,
they rushed in by the side gate to see what had happened to her.
At the accusations by the old men,
the servants felt very much ashamed,
for never had any such thing been said about Susanna.
When the people came to her husband Joakim the next day,
the two wicked elders also came,
fully determined to put Susanna to death.
Before all the people they ordered:
“Send for Susanna, the daughter of Hilkiah,
the wife of Joakim.”
When she was sent for,
she came with her parents, children and all her relatives.
All her relatives and the onlookers were weeping.
In the midst of the people the two elders rose up
and laid their hands on her head.
Through tears she looked up to heaven,
for she trusted in the Lord wholeheartedly.
The elders made this accusation:
“As we were walking in the garden alone,
this woman entered with two girls
and shut the doors of the garden, dismissing the girls.
A young man, who was hidden there, came and lay with her.
When we, in a corner of the garden, saw this crime,
we ran toward them.
We saw them lying together,
but the man we could not hold, because he was stronger than we;
he opened the doors and ran off.
Then we seized her and asked who the young man was,
but she refused to tell us.
We testify to this.”
The assembly believed them,
since they were elders and judges of the people,
and they condemned her to death.
But Susanna cried aloud:
“O eternal God, you know what is hidden
and are aware of all things before they come to be:
you know that they have testified falsely against me.
Here I am about to die,
though I have done none of the things
with which these wicked men have charged me.”
The Lord heard her prayer.
As she was being led to execution,
God stirred up the holy spirit of a young boy named Daniel,
and he cried aloud:
“I will have no part in the death of this woman.”
All the people turned and asked him,
“What is this you are saying?”
He stood in their midst and continued,
“Are you such fools, O children of Israel!
To condemn a woman of Israel without examination
and without clear evidence?
Return to court, for they have testified falsely against her.”
Then all the people returned in haste.
To Daniel the elders said,
“Come, sit with us and inform us,
since God has given you the prestige of old age.”
But he replied,
“Separate these two far from each other that I may examine them.”
After they were separated one from the other,
he called one of them and said:
“How you have grown evil with age!
Now have your past sins come to term:
passing unjust sentences, condemning the innocent,
and freeing the guilty, although the Lord says,
‘The innocent and the just you shall not put to death.’
Now, then, if you were a witness,
tell me under what tree you saw them together.”
“Under a mastic tree,” he answered.
Daniel replied, “Your fine lie has cost you your head,
for the angel of God shall receive the sentence from him
and split you in two.”
Putting him to one side, he ordered the other one to be brought.
Daniel said to him,
“Offspring of Canaan, not of Judah, beauty has seduced you,
lust has subverted your conscience.
This is how you acted with the daughters of Israel,
and in their fear they yielded to you;
but a daughter of Judah did not tolerate your wickedness.
Now, then, tell me under what tree you surprised them together.”
“Under an oak,” he said.
Daniel replied, “Your fine lie has cost you also your head,
for the angel of God waits with a sword to cut you in two
so as to make an end of you both.”
The whole assembly cried aloud,
blessing God who saves those who hope in him.
They rose up against the two elders,
for by their own words Daniel had convicted them of perjury.
According to the law of Moses,
they inflicted on them
the penalty they had plotted to impose on their neighbor:
they put them to death.
Thus was innocent blood spared that day.

Responsorial Psalm

PS 23:1-3A, 3B-4, 5, 6

R. (4ab) Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.

Gospel
JN 8:1-11

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”