N.B.: Several typographical and grammatical errors that went unnoticed in the draft text of the below homily at the time I published it, have now been corrected to make for a smoother read, with a few minor additions or subtractions here and there which do not alter the themes of the homily.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent (C)Dear brothers and sisters,
Too often, we are quick to ask, where the man with whom the woman committed adultery in today’s passage of the Gospel? Why did the scribes and Pharisees not bring him to Jesus and condemn him, too, we ask, as the law required? Why does Jesus himself not insist on the man being brought before him? The immediacy with which these questions come to our minds and hearts shows that we are not unlike those scribes and Pharisees, for they show that we, too, are quick to point the finger and condemn, without considering our own sinfulness. In doing so, we fail to see, to hear, to understand, the overwhelming, gentleness of Jesus, together with his justice.
“Go, and from now on do not sin anymore,” he says to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11). In these gentle and merciful words, we see – as Pope Francis writes in his bull of indiction for this Jubilee of Mercy – that everything in Jesus “speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion.” As he says to her, so he says to us, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Is this a fair command that the Lord issues to us? We are weak and sinful; wounded by original sin, our intellects are darkened and we have an inclination, a tendency, towards evil that we call concupiscence. Though the stain of original sin is washed away in baptism, the effects of original sin remain. The Lord knows we are still wounded and weak; how then can he tell us to go and sin no more? He does so because he wants us to attain the resurrection of the dead (cf. Philippians 3:11).
Saint Augustine once famously said that each of us is a fomes peccati, a tinderbox of sin. He means to say that it takes but a small spark to ignite the destructive fire of sin within us. Each of us knows what sins we are prone to commit and to which temptations we most easily succumb. We know, if we are honest, what strikes against us and catches fire; we know that we are indeed walking tinderboxes of sin.
Considering, then, this reality of our fallen human nature, we hear again the words of the Lord: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” We want to keep these words of the Lord, to live without sin, but we are also well aware of our weakness and sinfulness. What then are we to do?
For a start, we must not follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel who go about looking for the sins of others while seemingly ignoring their own. After cautioning them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her,” Jesus bent down a second time to write on the ground (John 8:7). The one who wrote on the ground with his finger is the very same one who, with that same finger, carved the Ten Commandments into those two stone tablets given to Moses (cf. Exodus 31:18). As the author of the law, he is the one who ultimately judges violations of the law and calls us sinners to judgment; he is also the one who grants clemency.
Seeing what he wrote on the ground, whatever it was, the Pharisees “went away one by one” and so the woman was left alone with Jesus (John 8:9). What a great tragedy! Only one repentant sinner remained; the unrepentant sinners went away, simply because they had not yet been caught in their sins. They stood before the visible and tangible incarnation of love, and in their proud refusal to acknowledge themselves as sinners, they closed their hearts to mercy, and walked away from him.
Consider, my friends, the great mercy the Lord would have extended to the scribes and Pharisees had they, too, remained with him! Pride kept them away and closed their hearts; let humility keep us with Jesus when he reveals our sins to us, whether in the silence of our hearts or on the ground before us.
Without the grace and mercy of God, we, too, are like captives bound by sin (cf. Psalm 126:1). From this captivity, the Lord Jesus longs to free us, but he will not release us against our wills. We must engage in a great spiritual battle to which, by virtue of baptism and confirmation, we are summoned. We must strive to turn our hearts from our sinful desires, away from the things of this world, and strive to turn them instead toward the will of the Lord and toward the things of heaven. If we cooperate with the grace God gives to those who ask it of him, if we do not deny our sins but confess them, then we will “be counted among the members of Christ.” Indeed, if we open our hearts to the depths of his mercy, he will release us from the captivity of sin and our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with rejoicing (cf. Psalm 126:2).
Saint Paul knew this battle well. Writing to the Church in Rome, he declared, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). We might say he knew himself to be a walking tinderbox of sin. The Apostle recognized the necessity of engaging actively – and not merely passively - in this struggle because he knew what is at stake: the supreme good (cf. Philippians3:8).
The great J.R.R. Tolkien, the famed author of The Lord of the Rings, knew this, as well. Referring to the failure of Frodo, Tolkien said, “one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate [by which he here meant mortal] creatures, however ‘good.’” This is why - in another letter in which he also comments on the failure of Frodo - Tolkien suggests how we should approach this spiritual battle:
To ourselves we must present the absolute ideal without compromise, for we do not know our own limits of natural strength (+grace), and if we do not aim at the highest we shall certainly fall short of the utmost that we could achieve. To others, in any case of which we know enough to make a judgment, we must apply a scale tempered by ‘mercy’: that is, since we can with good will do this without the bias inevitable in judgments of ourselves, we must estimate the limits of another’s strength and weigh this against the force of particular circumstances.
Here, of course, Tolkien is not denying the reality of sin or brushing away its consequences; rather, he suggests, as Pope Francis says, “pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” The scribes and Pharisees would not allow themselves to be merciful, and so they also refused to receive mercy.
Weak and prone to sin though we are, we are not without hope, for the Lord himself has prepared rest areas, if you will, in which we can regain our strength and emerge refreshed and rejuvenated. It is the Lord himself who “put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink” (Isaiah 43:20). That water, dear friends, flows from the sacred wounds of Christ; this invigorating river is the sacraments entrusted by the Lord to his Church, particularly the sacraments of penance and of the Eucharist. It is this water of grace that enables and ennobles us to strive to attain the highest ideal without compromise, that of walking “eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, [Jesus] handed himself over to death.” It is this water that dampens the tinderboxes of our hearts and helps us to resist sin and the wiles of the devil.
Despite his own great weaknesses, Saint Paul engaged exceedingly well in this battle. Because he drank frequently from these sacramental waters, he emerged victorious, even though, in the end, he lost his head. Today, he says to us, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians3:8-9). What is the greatest desire of our hearts? Is it to be found in Christ, or is it something else? How carefully do your guard your head?
In these remaining days of Lent, the Lord longs to forgive our sins, if only we will humble ourselves and remain with him, not resisting him, but instead seeking his mercy and grace. Let us not stay far from him, but let us approach him in the confessional to know his gentle and merciful love. Though we may go into the confessional weeping, we will emerge rejoicing because, having died to sin within its walls, we will rise anew in the love of God (cf. Psalm 126:6). And whether or not, in the end, we lose our heads out of love for, and loyalty to, Christ Jesus our Lord, we will keep the supreme good of knowing him (cf. Philippians 3:8). Amen.
 Prayer After Communion of the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft letter to J. Burn, 26 July 1956, emphasis original. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), 252.
 Ibid., Draft letter to Eileen Elgar, September 1963. In ibid., 326.
 Pope Francis, ibid., 9.
 Collect of the Fifth Sunday of Lent.