5th Sunday of Lent
April 7, 2019
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
One of the most important figures in the Gospels
is a great saint most people don’t think about very much,
and if they do, many have a very confused understanding of her.
But hopefully you know the truth about her, since she’s my favorite saint,
and I talk about her quite frequently: St. Mary Magdalene.
I say she’s important because, for example,
she’s mentioned by name more often in the Gospels
than most of the Apostles,
she was at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Mother,
when all the Apostles but St. John weren’t,
and, of course she was the first to see the Risen Christ on Easter,
and He sent her to tell the news to the Apostles.
For this, the Church sometimes calls her, “the apostle to the Apostles.”
Sadly, if you read a lot of modern so-called scholars,
you might think that she was actually even more important than that
—that she was actually an Apostle herself,
and some even say, bizarrely, that she was actually Jesus’ wife.
She was important, but not that important: those are lies, or sloppy scholarship.
Now, there is clearly more to the life story of the Magdalene
than what’s explicitly in the Bible.
In fact, in the Catholic tradition the story of Mary Magdalene
has always been commonly thought to include the story
of the woman Scripture calls the “sinful woman,”
the one who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears
at the home of Simon the Pharisee—that was the Magdalene.
Tradition also considers Magdalene
to be the same person known as “Mary of Bethany”
—the sister of Lazarus and Martha.
But unlike other modern portrayals of Magdalene,
all this Catholic tradition is based on or at least consistent with Sacred Scripture,
and handed down by centuries of faithful Catholic scholars and saints.
The thing is, there is also an ancient Catholic tradition, less widely accepted,
but reasonable and pretty widespread,
that the woman in today’s Gospel— “the woman caught in adultery”—
is also Mary Magdalene.
But this ancient tradition poses a problem for some people today.
For some, it’s a problem because it’s not explicitly in Scripture.
To them I say, “relax,” because we Catholics, along with most secular scholars,
have a long history of respecting oral and extra-biblical traditions,
as long as they come from credible sources,
and don’t contradict the teachings of Scripture or the Church.
But to others, this tradition proposes a completely different and huge problem.
They say that portraying Magdalene as a sinner
demeans her and deprives her of her rightful high stature in the Church.
The really radical ones claim
that this is a prime example of the anti-woman male-dominated Church,
trying to oppress all women by portraying the heroines of Christ’s life
in some sort of negative light.
These people couldn’t be more wrong.
Jesus tells us:
“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
And of the sinful woman who washes His feet with her tears He says:
“her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.”
Anyone who thinks that calling a Christian a “repentant sinner”
is an insult or degrading, misses the whole point of the entire Gospel.
As St. Paul tells us elsewhere:
“where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more,”
For me, to say that the Magdalene was a terrible sinner,
but a sinner who has been forgiven and repented and reformed
and loved the Lord so much that His death seems to crush her with grief
–to say this is to give the greatest praise,
and recount the most noble achievement.
Magdalene, especially understood as the adulterous woman in today’s gospel,
is the ultimate rags to riches story:
from terrible sinner to magnificent saint,
from the depths of despair and wretchedness
to the heights of sublime and perfect bliss
To repent and be saved—that’s not demeaning, it’s exalting.
And it’s the center of the life and the love of Jesus—
the reason and meaning of His suffering and death and resurrection.
As the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
“he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
….and with his wounds we are healed…”
Jesus came into the world to suffer and die,
and all because He loved and wanted to save sinners.
The woman in today’s Gospel stands condemned
by God’s law, called Law of Moses
—and under that Law she deserves to be stoned.
And Jesus, God the Son, knew that law very well:
1300 years before His Incarnation in the womb of Mary,
it was He, the Eternal Word of God, who gave that Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
But Jesus surprises the crowd, in the way he applies that law
by doing exactly what his Father sent him into the world to do:
“not to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.”
Some people think that this means that Jesus rejects the old Law,
or even all notions of sin and punishment.
If that’s the case, you can see why they can’t understand why
Magdalene’s sins can be important to Christians.
Of course they forget Jesus makes it very clear elsewhere in the Gospel
that he’s going to come back some day to judge the living and the dead,
and then he will condemn unrepentant sinners, as he says:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory
…Then he will say to those at his left,
….depart from me into the eternal fire…”
In today’s gospel Jesus does not deny this woman’s sin, or her guilt,
or even that she deserves punishment.
He simply gives her a second chance—it’s not time for him to condemn, yet:
he wants to save her.
But it is time for her to repent, so he commands her: “go and sin no more.”
And if you notice: Jesus doesn’t actually say, “your sins are forgiven.”
He just tells her he doesn’t “condemn” her—or pass final judgment on her—
and to stop sinning.
In other words, “repent.”
It seems to me, that Jesus knows she’s not completely sorry for her sins—yet.
She’s not ready to repent: right now she’s in shock,
and overwhelmed by Jesus’ mercy.
And so she leaves and ponders his instructions: “go and sin no more.”
To me, this is part one of the story completed later in part two
when she comes back as the so called “sinful woman”
and approaches Jesus at Simon’s house
and falls at his feet, washing them with her tears.
She wasn’t ready in today’s gospel, but when she comes back later,
then she’s ready, and her tears tell us what words cannot
of the depth of her sorrow for her sins.
And then, after she has so lovingly and heartfeltly repented,
Jesus not only forgives her, but he praises her:
“her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.”
It seems to me that we need this story, and the great figure of St. Mary Magdalene,
penitent saint, now more than ever.
In the end, those who want to rewrite the Gospels
actually want to glorify women by what they call “liberating their sexuality.”
But sexual liberation has been tried for over 50 years
and it’s led not to the enhancement or liberation of women,
but to their further enslavement to the lusts of men,
and to the myopic expectations of radical feminist ideologues.
Just look around at the explosion of
pornography, contraception, abortion, and divorce,
not to mention out-of-wedlock births and the poverty that comes with them.
Who are the ones who suffer the most as a result of all this?
Jesus Christ is the only true liberator of women, their only Savior.
He is the Savior of the woman caught in adultery, the Magdalene,
and every single woman before and since
who has been burdened by the weight of sin
—either their own sin, or the sins of others against them.
What a glorious promise to women weighed down
with the guilt of a past abortion.
What a sign of hope to the women today who are told over and over
that careers are more important than loving babies or husbands.
What a blessing to a young woman
who thinks she has to torture or demean herself
to look like a supermodel or a porn star,
so that some undeserving man will love her.
Now, more than ever, women need to know that Christ loves them,
and can make all things new.
But of course, this story isn’t just about women, or sex.
Jesus also tells the men who brought her to Him
“let he among you without sin, cast the first stone.”
Ultimately, this story is about all of us: men, women, boys, girls
–none of us is “without sin.”
Whether our sin is adultery and lust in its many forms,
or the sin of pride, or avarice, envy, anger, gluttony, or sloth,
or the sin of self-righteousness.
Whether we sin in large ways, or small ways.
Whether we’ve been caught in the act, or hide our sins in secret.
We are all sinners—and Christ is speaking to us.
And He invites us, especially during this season of Lent,
like the woman caught in adultery,
first, to be dramatically confronted by our sins
and the fact that they are worthy of punishment,
and then, to recognize that Christ wants to save us from all that!
If only we will mourn our sins, and repent, and change
and accept his love and love him in return, from the depths of our hearts,
like the repentant Magdalene washing his feet with her tears,
who, even though “her sins… [were] many,” was “forgiven, for she loved much.”
As we enter this Passiontide, these last days of Lent,
let us walk hand in hand with the great Saint Mary Magdalene,
and let us kneel with her, once again weeping at Jesus’ feet,
but this time as he hangs upon the Cross.
And let us ask her to teach us what these days are all about.
And through her example and intercession,
let us discover that there is no greater privilege or honor in heaven or earth,
than to be a repentant and forgiven sinner.
And there is no greater blessing than to be made new
by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ,
poured out from the wounds of his suffering and death.
And there are no more sublime or loving words
than the words Jesus once said to Magdalen, and today says to all of us:
“neither do I condemn you…go, and sin no more.”