5th Sunday of Lent (C)
Picture: cc IBM Research
Sisters and brothers, have you ever deleted something from a computer? Do you know what happens when you do? I didn’t. I used to think that whatever I delete is simply erased forever. Wiped out. Washed away. Never to be seen again. But I was wrong. That’s not quite how it works. As you probably already know, what actually happens, when something is deleted, is that the data simply gets moved from one spot to another. And it’s then eventually written over by other data. Alternatively, I could use a special programme to write over the unwanted data immediately. So that it can’t be retrieved again.
The point is that, whatever method I choose, the deleted data isn’t erased completely. It actually remains in the computer’s memory. Except that it gets transformed in some way. By having other things written on top of it. Not unlike how an artist might paint over a mistake. Or incorporate it into a new image. Instead of using a brand new canvas.
Now, if this is true of data in a computer. And of mistakes in a painting. What about situations in my life? Events that I may wish to forget. How do I do that? Is it even possible? For example, haven’t we heard people say that, although they may be able to forgive someone who has hurt them, they are unable to forget? Unable to wipe clean the slate of their memory. How then to truly forgive? If we cannot forget? How to begin a new chapter of my life? If the scars of the past remain painfully etched in my mind and in my heart?
These are the important questions that our Mass readings help us to ponder on this 5th Sunday in Lent. Just seven more days till Holy Week. In each of our readings today, we find people being taught to forget the past. And in a very special way.
In the first reading, the people are suffering in exile in Babylon. And as they suffer, they are probably recalling the mighty deeds that God had worked for them in the past. And perhaps asking why God doesn’t do the same for them now. In the present. Why God doesn’t free them from Babylon. The way God freed their ancestors from Egypt.
God’s response seems at first rather surprising. Even shocking. God tells them that there is no need to recall the past. God invites them to stop focusing only on the mighty things that God did for their ancestors. But why? And how? Why forget a glorious past that they have always been taught to remember? The reason is simple. God is going to do for them something just as great, if not even greater, in the present. I am doing a new deed, God declares. Can you not see it? Yes, I am making a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds.
How does God help the people to stop clinging mournfully to their glorious past? Not by erasing it from their memory. But, instead, by writing over it with something even more wonderful. Something even more glorious. What the people need to do is not so much to erase the past, as to pay closer attention to the present. To the wonders that God is doing for them here and now.
St. Paul’s experience in the second reading is similar. He too finds himself prompted to forget the past. To stop clinging to his impressive qualifications as a fully trained and zealously observant Pharisee. How does he do this? How is he able not only let go of his considerable achievements, but even to regard them as so much rubbish? He does it not by erasing them. Or by wiping them out from his memory. But by having them written over by something much more valuable. Something far more powerful. His own unforgettable experience of meeting and falling in love with Jesus Christ. Paul is more than willing let go of the past, because he is captured and captivated by Christ in the present.
All of which helps us to better understand what is going on in the gospel. Here, the adulterous woman faces the difficult task of forgetting not just her own sinful actions. But also the traumatic treatment she receives from the enemies of Jesus. Who use her as nothing more than a tool to trap the Lord. Not only do they catch her in the very act of committing adultery. The reading tells us that they also parade her–very likely in some state of undress–in full view of everybody. How is this woman to forgive these cruel men? How to forgive herself? How to forget this painful and shameful past? In order to do what Jesus invites her to do? Go away, and do not sin any more…
Very likely it would be close to impossible for her to forget the past. If forgetting means simply to erase the events from her memory. But perhaps not so unthinkable, if forgetting means allowing her shame and her pain to be transformed. To be written over by something more powerful. The indescribable experience of hearing the Only Begotten Son of God speak up for her against her accusers. Of having him defend her. And champion her cause. If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. To have the Lord gaze gently and compassionately into her confused and fearful eyes. And to hear him speak those consoling and reassuring words: Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you…
Like the exiled people of Judah in the first reading. And like Paul in the second. If the woman in the gospel is able to let go of the past, it is only because she has experienced something more powerful and compelling in the present. Something that overwrites everything that she needs to forget. Everything that she needs to let go. So that she can respond to the call of the Lord. Inviting her to follow him into the future.
Sisters and brothers, could this be what it really means to forgive and to forget. Not so much that we should force ourselves to erase every trace of the past from our minds. But, instead, that we should do whatever we can to allow ourselves to be captured and captivated by the powerful presence of Christ. Healing us. Forgiving us. Setting us free…
And isn’t this what the Season of Lent is about? Allowing the Lord to set us free from all the things that bind us. All the things to which we cling. All the things that prevent us from following Jesus as he walks the Way of the Cross. The only Way that leads to Life.
Sisters and brothers, as we continue our Lenten observance, how does the Lord wish to set you free? What data does he wish to delete from your mind and heart? By writing over it with the power of his love and mercy today?