Fifth Sunday of Lent – C

Readings: Is 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11


Our title for today’s Reflection states that everyone who has been declared a Saint was, at one time, something less than saintly. This is a word of encouragement, that every person who has been made a saint was once a normal person like the rest of us, that no one is born into sainthood.

It also states the same thing, in reverse, saying that everyone who is now a sinner has an opportunity to become a better person. By inference, you might even think that sainthood was possible for a handful of us.

Here below we have the lives of saints who had a disturbed past but once they allowed Jesus to enter into their life, they were never the same…

St. Mary of Egypt: At age 12, Mary (c.344-c.421) ran away from home to Alexandria, the most exciting city in the Roman Empire. She became an accomplished seductress, who took special pleasure in corrupting innocent young men. Once, on a whim, she joined a pilgrimage to the holy Land. By the time the ship reached its destination, Mary had seduced the entire crew and all of the pilgrims. In Jerusalem she realized the enormity of her sins, went to confession, then spent the rest of her life as a hermit in the desert. Her feast day is April 2.

St. Olga: When a neighboring tribe assassinated her husband, Olga (c.879-969), princess of Kiev, went to war. She massacred virtually the entire tribe; the few who did survive she sold into slavery. Years later, while in Constantinople to make an alliance with the emperor, Olga visited a church and was in awe of the magnificence of the liturgy. She took instruction, was baptized and returned to Kiev, zealous to convert her people. Hardly anyone would listen to her. Even her family rejected Christianity. Olga died believing that as a missionary, she was a failure. Her feast day is July 11.

St. Vladimir: Olga’s grandson Vladimir (956-1015) became prince of Kiev by murdering his older brother. Then he raped his sister-in-law and added her to his harem of several hundred women. To consecrate a new temple to all the gods, he sacrificed a father and his son. When the emperor at Constantinople sought his help in putting down a rebellion, Vladimir demanded as his reward the emperor’s sister as his wife (actually, the unhappy woman would be Vladimir’s eighth wife). The emperor countered that Vladimir must convert to Christianity. Everyone suspected that once he was back in Kiev, Vladimir would return to his old ways, but the grace of baptism changed him. He dismissed his extra wives and his harem, tore down the pagan temple, and launched a vigorous campaign to convert his people. The faith his grandmother planted flourished under Vladimir. His feast day is July 15.

St. Thomas Becket: As chancellor of England under henry II, Thomas Becket (1118-1170) became obscenely wealthy. His wardrobe was larger and more expensive than the king’s. He even had his own private navy. In spite of all his wealth, Becket was cold-hearted and never gave anything to the poor. All that changed after Becket was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. He gave away all his possessions. He welcomed the poor at his table. And he became a champion of the independence of the Church, for which he was murdered in his own cathedral by four of King henry’s knights. His feast day is Dec. 29.

St. Philip Howard: Son of one of the wealthiest noble families in England, Philip howard (1557-1595) could afford any pleasure he liked — and he liked them all. At court he was a notorious playboy, gambler and fop. He ran up enormous debts, then sold off his wife’s property to settle them. On one occasion he said publicly that he did not really consider himself to be married. In 1581, he joined other members of the court at the Tower of London to see a debate between several Anglican ministers and a prisoner, the Jesuit priest St. Edmund Campion. Although the ministers were armed with books and assistants, Father Campion was alone and had only his memory to rely on, yet he did so well in the debate that the government canceled them before a verdict was rendered. Inspired by Father Campion, howard reconciled with his wife, and they both returned to the Catholic faith. When they tried to leave the country secretly for the Continent, where they could practice Catholicism freely, they were stopped and howard was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He died there 10 years later. His feast day is Oct. 19.

Today’s First Reading is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 43:16-21. Last week, we heard of the conclusion of the exodus from Egypt; the first Passover celebration in the land of Canaan. This week we look forward to a new exodus that God promises through the prophet Isaiah. The new exodus promises to be far more wonderful than the first. God promises to restore his people after they have suffered in exile.

The Second Reading is from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 3:8-14, and is a warning to the Philippians about false teachers; Judaizers who would try to hang on to the old ways while at the same time claiming to be Christians. The Judaizers taught that in order to be a Christian, you first had to be a Jew: to be circumcised and to obey all 613 Old Covenant commandments. This question, whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity must first become full and legal Jews, prompted the Council of Jerusalem.

Gospel: What a contrast between the cruelty of the scribes and Pharisees and the compassion of Jesus in our Gospel (John 8:1-11). The scribes and Pharisees had no regard for the woman. They were only interested in using her to try to trap Jesus. She was a pawn in their game of chess. They had no regard for the fact that maybe she did not initiate the sin, perhaps it was the man. But Jesus is full of compassion. He restored the woman again, in two ways. He restored her spiritually by forgiving her, telling her he did not condemn her, while also insisting that she not sin again, and he restored her to society by saving her life. No one knows what Jesus wrote on the ground but some people suspect Jesus wrote the sins of the scribes and Pharisees. Notice also that it was the eldest who went away first. The eldest had committed more sins, those who had lived longer had more to be sorry about in their own lives. The woman received forgiveness from Jesus and also received her life back again.

Take heed of Jesus’ last words to the woman, “Go away and don’t sin any more.” (John 8:11) Although Jesus had forgiven her sin he expected her to live a life of grace and union with God from then on by not sinning any more. Jesus doesn’t say that sin does not matter because sin does matter and damages our relationship with God. So Jesus says, “Go away and don’t sin any more.” When we receive Jesus’ forgiveness he expects us to live as new people afterwards. That is precisely the attitude with which we are to come to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It would make no sense to come to confess our sins if we intend to continue committing the same sins again. In weakness we may commit the same sin again but as we come to confession if we do not intend to amend our lives then surely we cannot say that we are truly sorry for our sins. Surely we can only genuinely say that we are truly sorry for our sins if we have a firm intention not to commit sin again.

Let’s get to know more about Mary Magdalene, faithful friend of Our Lord:

The name “Mary Magdalene” can evoke different images to various people. Many see her as a deranged woman suffering from being possessed by demons, while others view her as a fallen woman, even a prostitute.

While the facts of Mary’s life are sketchy, at best, one thing is perfectly clear: Mary Magdalene loved Jesus, and Jesus loved her. In fact, her story will forever remain entwined with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Her name means “trouble and sorrow”.

The name “Mary” occurs 51 times in the New Testament and is taken from the Old Testaments names of Miriam and Mara, which mean “bitter”. The root of the name “Mary” is derived from the notion of trouble and sorrow (Lockyer, All the Women of The Bible, p. 92.) Being a common name during this time period, this Mary was distinguished from all others by being referred to as “The Magdalene”, which identifies her as being born in Magdala, a thriving city on the coast of Galilee about three miles from Capernaum. The city of Magdala was known for its primitive textile factories and dye works. While it is only speculation, it could be that Mary Magdalene was connected in some way with that industry, which would have enabled her to help support the ministry of Jesus, as she was known to have done.

There is nothing in the biblical record of Mary’s family life. The Scripture does not list her parentage, any family members, her marital status, or her age. The gospel accounts of her life suggest that she had no family obligations, thus freeing her to follow Jesus in his traveling ministry.

From demon-possessed to devoted disciple: While many equate Mary Magdalene with the woman of Luke 7:37 “who was a sinner” or the woman caught in adultery in John 8:3, there is not the slightest evidence in the gospel narratives or in the writings of the early church fathers to support the claim that Mary Magdalene had ever been a woman of ill repute. What the Bible does tell us about her is that she had been possessed by seven demons, which probably caused her to have bouts of insanity, and that Jesus cast them out of her, freeing her from that awful malady (Luke 8:2).

Being delivered from her tormenting captors, Mary became a disciple of Jesus, to whom she showed great love and devotion. Along with other women, Mary gave both personal and financial support to the ministry of Jesus, following him from place to place in his missionary activities.

A leading woman in ministry: Mary Magdalene is mentioned fourteen times in the gospels and from that record we can compose a sketchy profile of her life. It is worth noting that in eight of the fourteen instances that she is mentioned, Mary is named in connection with other women, of which she is always named first. This would lead us to believe that she occupied the place at the front in service rendered by godly women. In the five times she is mentioned alone, it is in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Mark 16:9; John 20:1, 11, 16, 18).

Forever faithful to her Lord, Mary Magdalene was among the last at the cross to witness Christ’s death and, following Joseph of Arimathea to see where Jesus’ body would be laid, she was the last to leave his tomb after night had fallen. Intending to honor Christ by anointing his body with spices and perfumes, she was the first to visit the tomb on resurrection morning and the first to carry the news that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Jesus honored her: What a great honor God bestowed upon Mary in permitting her to be the first witness of his resurrection! The gospel of John tells us best of what happened that day. Mary was at the tomb at first light that first Easter morning. How surprised she must have been to see the stone rolled away! Peering into the cave she saw that it was empty, which made her weep. After finding the grave empty Mary rushed to find Peter and John and blurted out “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher and we know not where they have laid him”. Peter and John went to the tomb with Mary and found that she told them the truth, but they left, departing “to their own homes”. But Mary stayed. It was then, after speaking to two angels, that Jesus revealed himself to Mary.

After comforting her, Jesus commissioned Mary to be the first messenger of his resurrection. It was her job to “go to the brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God” (John 20:17). What an honor to be the first to herald the resurrection!

What Mary can teach us: There is much we can learn from the life of Mary Magdalene.

1. In her life we can see just how much Christ can do for a woman. He delivered her afflicted, tormented soul and healed her of all her afflictions, leaving her a changed woman.

2. Through her life we not only learn what Christ can do for us, but what we can do for him. His great love and compassion toward her completely changed her life and led Mary to become a faithful, sacrificial follower. So grateful for her deliverance, Mary practiced her faith by following Jesus and ministering to him and his disciples out of her financial means and taking care of their physical needs. Her gratitude and love manifested itself in her devotion to Christ.

3. Christ’s work for Mary Magdalene and her loving ministration to him constitute the type of elevation of woman to the rank of friendship with man. She was no longer to be considered a slave or servant, but his co-worker and equal, capable of accepting equal responsibilities and sharing equally in the results.

Mary Magdalene owed much, gave much, loved much and served much. She is a wonderful example of a woman whose life was poured out in response to God’s extravagant grace.

Jesus told the woman not to sin again and since sin is so horrible and horrific we need to take steps to ensure that we do not sin again because otherwise we will gradually drift again into the same sin. The first step to take is deal with where all sin begins, the mind. Among the Native Americans there is a story of a father who said there were two wolves fighting within him, one bad and one good. His son asked which wolf wins and the father said whichever one he feeds the most. Sin begins in the mind. We need to fill our minds with what is good instead of with rubbish. It is media in all forms, in TV, social network and so many other ways, that are filling our minds with the bad stuff that leads us on to sin. Sin begins in the mind, from there it moves on to become an action, from there it moves on to become a lifestyle, and then it affects us in eternity. Jesus said not to sin again. We need to begin by feeding our minds with what is good instead of with rubbish.

St Paul said, “Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 2:5) In another letter New Testament letter we read, “Since you have been raised up to be with Christ, you must look for the things that are above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on things above, not on the things that are on the earth.” (Col 3:1-2)

Remember that our God is a God of the future, not of the past.

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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