The popular musical “Les Miserables,” based on the novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of Jean Valjean. In the beginning of the play Jean Valjean is a prisoner. He had been convicted of stealing bread for his sister and her child. After serving almost 20 years in prison he is released on parole. He tries to find a job but is labeled a “convict” because of his crime. People would shun him on this account.
Alone and destitute, the Bishop of Digne finds him and invites him into his home for food and shelter for the evening. During the night, Valjean steals the silver plates and serving items from the dining room and fled. Caught and arrested by the police, he is returned to the bishop. Valjean tells the constables that the bishop gave him the objects, to which the bishop replies, “This is true, but my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind, you forgot I gave these (two large candlesticks) also. Would you leave the best behind?” The constables leave.
The bishop continues: “But remember this my brother, see in this some higher plan, you must use this precious silver to become an honest man, by the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness, I have bought your soul for God!” From this point Valjean lets go of his anger and resentment. He begins a new life; a life of love. Mercy offered him a new beginning, a fresh start.
The Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy is that of the woman caught in the act of adultery from the Gospel according to John. The woman was clearly guilty of sin, a major sin. The scribes and Pharisees bring her before Jesus for judgment. She is humiliated before the people.
The scribes and Pharisees are trying to test Jesus. The punishment for her crimes, according to the law, is death by stoning. Jesus kneels down and begins writing in the sand (the evangelist does not recall what Jesus wrote). When pressed for an answer Jesus says: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
They cannot and slowly go away, one by one. Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one sir,” she replies, to which Jesus says: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on and do not sin anymore.”
Jesus offers the woman mercy. It is this mercy that will give her life (literally for the punishment for her sin was death). Jesus gives her life and a new beginning. She is freed from her sins and told to start anew. “Go now and sin no more,” is the call to conversion. To start fresh, on a new path, Jesus’ mercy affords her this opportunity.
The renewal and rebirth imagery of the Isaian passage that serves for the first reading in Sunday’s liturgy finds resonance with the power of mercy in the Gospel account. The Lord says through Isaiah “… see I am doing something new! … In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers … for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.”
Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman’s sin gives her new life. Sin had dried up her life. She was, in a sense, destitute. With mercy, new life flows into her and she can begin again.
The week after next Holy Week will begin, where we celebrate the new life that Christ has won for all of us. He does this through mercy. He takes on our sins, carries them to the cross and pours out his mercy on us.
Recall his words at the last supper. After taking the cup, giving thanks and giving it to the disciples, Jesus says: “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 26:27-28). The observance of Lent is helping us prepare for this celebration.
In the next two weeks, many parishes throughout the area will have confessions available through the regularly scheduled times, with additional times for Lent and/or Lenten penance services. Confession provides a wonderful opportunity to experience sacramental forgiveness and the outpouring of God’s mercy — a chance for a new beginning or a fresh start on this journey of life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.