past few years these homilies for a Sunday
in Lent, usually the March issue of Celebration
and coming from one starting point or another,
have tried to explore how Lent itself is a
way that the church is formed. To adapt (from
the Jewish tradition) the most compact way
to put it: It is not so much that Christians
keep Lent, but Lent keeps Christians. The
homilies in this column last month (for the
Sunday before Lent and for Ash Wednesday)
might also be helpful. The homily that follows
is for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in 2007 but
some of it could be used on any of the Lenten
Sundays in March this year. The song verses
used are from a collection of ritual songs: By
Heart: Seasonal Songs for Gathering, Interceding,
and Communion (Tony
Alonso and Gabe Huck, GIA Publications: Chicago,
2005 at www.giamusic.com or
When we hear the first few words of today's
Gospel we likely have no idea where it's
going: Early one morning Jesus goes to the temple
area, people come to him and he sits down to
teach them. But when we hear the first words
of the next line, we know at once what story
this will be. Some men arrive and with them
a woman "caught in the very act of committing
adultery." They haul her into the midst
of the people gathered around Jesus. It is a
strange and memorable story. Likely we all know
how it will end even as we listen to that beginning
line. But the drama still holds us. This story,
like none other in the Gospel, describes the
postures of Jesus: Jesus sitting, bending down,
straightening up again. It makes for drama as
it takes us to the conclusion we know but still
wait to hear again: Neither do I condemn you.
(How these words are a promise to us all!) In
the end, everyone has gone away, including those
who came to hear Jesus teach, everyone except
the woman and Jesus. He tells her to go also.
Jesus is left alone, perhaps still bending down
to write with his finger on the ground.
So with just twelve of Lent's forty days
remaining, what are we to make of this? It might
be a call for the church, for us, to look together
at what sort of balance we are striking between
being on the one hand a sort of police state,
and on the other a very vague sort of club where
each of us does pretty much that he or she pleases,
believes pretty much what he or she is comfortable
with. Every human institution, and the church
is certainly that at any level from our assembly
this morning to the Vatican, every human institution
faces temptations. One such temptation is this:
When it seems that things are falling apart,
those who hold titles and offices are all too
liable to become afraid. They are likely to
dust off old rules and make new rules. They
are likely to try to nail down what's
right and what's wrong. They are likely
to think that safeguarding the church means
just leave it all to them: Father knows best.
At such times, the leadership may confuse the
church with themselves.
What then do we make of this tiny story of the
hubbub caused when some perhaps well-meaning
men brought before Jesus and his listeners a
woman who, in their minds, had broken God's
law? We should not miss something rather amazing
in the story. It is this: These men listen to
what Jesus tells them: "Let the one among
you who is without sin be the first to throw
a stone at her." They listen, and they
must glimpse in Jesus' words some bit
of a vision that there is another way to do
things, another way to be faithful members of
the community. They have the honesty and the
courage to face the truth and give up the righteousness
that sent them out looking for a sinner. Jesus
challenged the ground on which they were standing,
the way they were telling people it had to be,
the sort of things they thought it would take
to maintain the faithful community.
What we have in this story is a rare instance
of leadership listening to another vision of
the community. And not just listening, but open
to a truth not recognized before, a truth that
shakes the foundations on which this leadership
has been standing. So they went away, one by
one. They didn't ask more questions, they
didn't argue. This is amazing given what
we all experience of human nature and human
institutions. Of course we have no idea what
came next for them. Maybe some of them fell
back to games of power, deciding who's
a sinner, who's messing up the precious
institution, what burdens to put on others.
But for this moment they give us a breath-taking
example of how a clear and honest word can turn
Whether we have been hard at our Lenten disciplines,
our Lenten work, since Ash Wednesday, or whether
we haven't really given Lent a half-serious
thought, let's turn this morning to those
dozen days that remain, and think about them
in light of this story.
Lent is about one thing: the deed we are going
to do when Lent is over. When Lent has ended
on Holy Thursday afternoon, we enter into three
days - Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter
Sunday - that are the very heart of our
year and of our lives. Through Good Friday and
Holy Saturday we help each other to prepare
well for what this church, ourselves ready or
not, will do in the night between Holy Saturday
and Easter Sunday. Together and alone we all
do the praying and the fasting to make these
days different from any other of the year. And
then we come to spend that Saturday night here
together keeping vigil, listening to scripture,
singing psalms, calling on all the saints, returning
the lovely alleluia to our lips, until we are
as ready as we can be to approach the font with
those who will die in the waters of baptism
to live new in Christ.
All of Lent exists to get us to that font. For
forty days the church struggles with the gospel
it believes, struggles to become what we are:
We are those who renounced evil, accepted the
way of the gospel, and then in those baptism
waters were embraced by God and became what
ever since we have struggled to be, the body
of Christ, the church. In a way, once we are
in that baptism water, we stay there. It isn't
like some sort of entrance examination: once
we pass, we never have to think about such things
again. Instead, ready or not we are plunged
into waters that forever define who we are,
still swirl around us. Each year we gather our
strength and for forty days, or maybe just twelve
if we start today, we do some things that renew
us as the church that is ever being created
at the font.
Through the years of many Lents little by little
we put on Christ, we learn the way of the baptized,
we fast and pray and simplify our lives so that
we may see more clearly what we are doing here
in this world, we who are the church, we who
are the world. A Lenten song puts it this way:
Marked by ashes we have come,
we, the world so troublesome,
we, the members: Christ, our sum.
Now we pray by day and night,
Keep the fast to clear our sight,
Share our goods to set things right.
What is this "fast to clear our sight"?
Certainly it can't be doing without something
that is superfluous anyway, something we'll
just start again on Easter. It may not even
be about food or drink or cigarettes and such.
What fast do we need that will "clear
our sight"? What things, what deeds, what
habits? We have to think about our time, for
example, and the stuff around us, about our
bodies, about each other. How will a baptized
person see these in relation to all the earth,
all the world? Can we examine how we use up
time, use up the earth, use up our bodies and
those of others, use up so much stuff that there's
little or none left for most folks on this planet?
Now we're talking about a fast that clears
our sight: to free ourselves with some hard
effort these Lenten days and so have the time
and space to see clearly. To see this world
with eyes of baptism, with gospel eyes. How
will it look? What will we find urgent? What
must we pay attention to? Where must we have
And what of "share our goods to set things
right"? When we do what we must to gain
clear sight of this world around us, then baptized
people like us are going to find a thousand
thousand ways to make some justice happen in
a world more and more unjust, in a world where
more and more we privileged live behind expensive
walls. And to make some justice happen in a
world where the greed of one generation threatens
the very existence of future generations.
We are not just scattered souls each working
alone on Lent. We're the church. Listen
to another of these little verses:
Strong and weak, be here at home.
Bold or shy, here laugh, here groan.
Gospel weighs too much alone.
So it does. Gospel weighs too much alone. Who
could bear it alone? We must do this together.
Around this table we make that pledge every
time we share a common bread and drink from
a common cup, eating and drinking what in truth
we are, the body of Christ.
And so we return to that story about how Jesus
challenged those men on that morning when they
presumed to speak with authority. The Lent we
strive to keep, forty days or twelve, wants
this church of ours to be as faithful and as
free as Jesus was when he answered the question
about putting the woman to death.
Right now this cumbersome structure, the bishops
and the various bureaucracies, have not had
such a good decade or two. Lots of wrong brought
into the light. Lots of folks going elsewhere.
The respect of outsiders gone. Lots of blaming.
In such a time those who have authority grow
afraid, like the men in the story. Rules. Control.
As if the discipline of the gospel were not
enough. As if we the church are to be defined
and bound by anything other than the immense
discipline of this table, this gospel. And we
all can get pulled in by the fear. It becomes
more important to keep some people from the
table than to ask: Why am I carrying this stone
in my hand? Am I building a community or a wall?
Lent is a deadly serious matter for us, for
us the church. One last verse:
Hear, O God, a servant's wail:
You, Almighty, now so frail,
Shall the power of death prevail?
This is the mystery in which we Christians begin
and end: God almighty, frail and crushed, crushed
like the grapes of our wine, like the grains
of our bread. "You, Almighty, now so frail." And
the question that the church works all Lent
to answer: "Shall the power of death prevail?"
Shall it prevail? In Iraq? In Haiti? In the
church? Thanks be to God! Let us keep Lent and
so be ready with an answer.
Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.
Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource
of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).