5th Week of Lent
by Fr. Basil Harnish, O.Praem.
And again: God gave to Moses a tablet of stone inscribed by the finger of God.
Then: If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
At last: Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with His finger.
Today, on this Passion Sunday, we are nourished by the dramatic scene of the recapitulation of all things in Christ Jesus made manifest by the dialogue of Christ with an adulterous woman. Here, an adulterous woman’s secretive life moves from hidden to revealed, from revealed to acknowledged, from acknowledged to forgiven, from forgiven to infectious.
From today’s Gospel lesson we are given the inspiration to pick up the stones of creation, turn them away from others and hurl them towards our own wicked and fearful hearts. And we have surety that these sonorous beats of contrition are graced by the presence of the finger of God, the Digitus Dei, the Holy Spirit, Who sanctifies us through the waters of baptism and spares us from the fires of hell. And this same Holy Spirit is here, latent, waiting for the acceptable time to reveal Himself through the person of Jesus Christ.
Through the theandric action of the Messiah bending down, the Holy Spirit, the finger of God, plows open the original designs of creation and reconfigures the slime of the earth. He no longer hovers over the waters but now enters into the very heart of the earth, of creation. He digs into the wound of sleeping Adam and re-creates His primordial work by sending forth a deluge of living water that wells up to eternal life. And it is these deifying waters of baptism which cause those, who, as an effect, have the Spirit dwelling in their hearts, to pour out rivers of living water upon others, both sinners and saints.
But why not peek a little deeper into the hidden workings of the finger of God, the Spirit of the Father and the Son? What is below the surface, in that place where the Spirit and creation interact in a dynamic and ever fruitful way? We should embark on this journey towards greater knowledge of the Holy Ghost at least for the sake of pleasing St. Basil the Great, the Doctor of the Holy Spirit, who we all know is really cool. But even more so because today the Holy Spirit wants to tell each of us something, to teach us something, to whisper something, to intimate something which is for particular to each one of us and can only be understood by each of us, in our own personal way.
The Holy Spirit is described as being the “breath of God.” He is the giving over of the life from the Father to the Son and the reciprocation of the same life. St. Augustine calls Him, the bond or nexus between the Father and His only begotten Son. The Divine Consoler is also an inhalation and exhalation between the first and second persons of the Trinity. Or even more perfectly, the Holy Spirit is the eternal “Kiss” between Father and Son.
St. Augustine, after proclaiming his praise of God’s beauty, exclaiming, ‘O beauty ever ancient and ever new,’ ecstatically says: “You lavished your fragrance, I gasped.” Now the word “halatus,” is a breathing out. It represents the same meaning as “spiritus,” breath. But ‘halatus’ takes on the idea of breathing out a fragrance, as when one breathes out a fragrance upon another; a kiss if you will. The wayward Augustine is kissed and he gasps. He loses his breath and gasps until the Divine breath becomes his own.
We see this idea of certain fragrant kisses or embraces in other places in the Scriptures, mostly in poetical literature like the Song of Songs. There we read such things as: “Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.”
And it is this supreme kiss, the Holy Spirit, Who is reciprocated between the Father and the Son, that enters into the hearts of men in order that they might be sanctified, by His very presence, from within their souls. In other words, the Father and the Son breathe the Holy Spirit into the hearts of men and consequently God kisses us, He tastes us and we taste Him, we feast on Him and He feasts on us. We taste Jim, we hunger, we thirst for Him; He touches us and we burn for His peace. He seduces us and we are seduced.
We become slaves to that kiss. We cannot help but pant after that kiss and desire its consummation in the depths of our souls. We want only to be annihilated by that loving embrace. Nevertheless, in the here and now, it causes us to make the best use of the good things we do have. As an effect we see everything as a gift through the lens of this lip-locked embrace. We are kissed, we can recognize the Spirit’s embrace within us and therefore we can desire it for others, we can allow the Holy Spirit to kiss others from within us, and we can kiss others in union with Him.
In short, we become the instruments of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying action which extends from His procession from the Father and the Son. In simple terms, by the Spirit’s indwelling we become other ‘Holy Spirits’ because we participate in His subsisting relation within the Trinity itself.
But lest we digress, it is appropriate to shift gears back to today’s Gospel. In order that this examination prove fruitful, we can take this theological dialect and apply it to the situation of Christ’s exemplary actions in St. John’s account of the adulterous woman. We must put the puzzle together in order to see the whole composition. Christ bends down to the ground and drives the Holy Spirit, the eternal kiss, into the rock of His creation. And what does it mean for Christ to kiss the ground of His creation? It means that He will not abandon His creation, that He loves His creation and He has every confidence that all creation will be restored by His pouring out of the Spirit, the water, and the blood. A new flood, not intended to destroy creation, but to destroy the devil’s hold on creation in order that all things may redound unto the glory of the most Holy Trinity. Christ makes all things new by drowning each one of our former ‘adulterous selves’ in the waters of baptism, by feeding us with His blood, and kissing us with the kiss of His mouth; placing a new Spirit within us.
And we might consider who is this unnamed woman? Clearly she has been set up for a fall by the righteous leaders of the Israelites in order that they might condemn both her and the Messiah, Who pardons her? These devilish leaders see this woman and Christ as one and the same: transgressors of the law that ought to be stoned for their blasphemies. We Catholics see this woman and Christ as one and the same: the bride and the bridegroom awaiting the consummation of their union in the bridal chamber of the wood of the cross. This woman represents the climax of the Spirit’s action in the hearts of men. This woman is the Church.
And it is here, before this hardhearted mob and before the universal Church, that Christ illustrates the efficacy of His liturgical action. He shows through His bodily postures, His words, and the indwelling Holy Ghost, a beautiful drama, a breathtaking dance between creation and its Creator.
Christ bends to the ground. This teaches us that Christ condescends, out of love, towards the things of creation. He creates land, waters, sky and the things that dwell therein. And on the seventh day He stands and looks upon His creation, delights in it, and rests. He rises from His work and rest in it. He rests in it, as a day, as a period of time, an acceptable time. Yet He knows that although He has bent down to creation and lifted it up to the heights of perfection, He will nevertheless choose to again stoop down to the level of creation. But this time He will enter into creation, He will enter into the divine womb of the queen of heaven. He knows before all time that He will take Adam’s flesh to Himself, that He will found the Church and through her liturgical action draw all things to Himself. In His Incarnation He bends down to fallen man and drives out the accusers who hold him bound to a debt he cannot pay.
And through His passion, death, and resurrection the King of kings gathers His children and places the Holy Spirit within the hearts of men. And this is a sign of God’s love for His church that, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He kisses upon His creation to restore what was lost by man’s adulterous ways. In the end, Christ again stands and takes His bride in His hand and He tells her, “neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” And just out of scene we can imagine Him whispering to this adulterous woman, His new found love, His bride the Church, “but if you do perhaps sin, let Me again kiss you and bind up all your wounds.”
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). My whole life has in one way or another revolved around the desires that make up the very core of this single verse. Sometimes intentionally, but most times unknowingly, I found that the direction of my life was set by the principles which form the bold application of this verse.
Even as his health declined, Fr. Leo continued to orient his life to the service of the altar, recognizing in the Holy Eucharist the source of every grace and heavenly blessing. At that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to be a Norbertine priest, “lifting high the Holy Eucharist over the miseries and errors of this world.”
The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses. It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”
Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import. In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid. Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.
But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man. Man has to leave one place to go to another. God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one. The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one. And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.
The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is. Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home. Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.
The reaction of son and father are perfect. The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his. He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.
When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love. We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism. The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation. Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel. “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.” In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.
This is the happiness of our eternal Father. His food is our salvation. His joy is our redemption from sin. As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.” This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints. And it is for us every time we go to confession.
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