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April 7, 2019
[St. Joseph Church, Makawao]
An old friend of mine told me this true story about himself. He was married and had two children. But he was a drug addict, and, as you can imagine, his life was quite chaotic. He would constantly have fights with his wife, and he emotionally abused his children. He spent the family’s money on drugs rather than on the necessities of life. One day, he lost his job, and he returned home very angry. He began to be verbally abusive to his wife and told her he had lost his job. She said to him, “That’s it! We are finished! I am taking the children, and we are leaving tonight and never coming back.” He was so angry that he was about to haul off and hit his wife, but something constrained him. Instead he stormed into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him. On the bedroom wall was a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He went up to the picture and hit it with all his might, shattering the glass. It fell to the floor, and then he fell to the floor and stayed there for six hours. When he got up, he knew he was a changed man. The next day he enrolled in a drug rehab program and was faithful to it. He eventually reconciled with his wife and children, found a good job, became involved in his parish, and was a very happy man. What changed him, he said, was that when he saw that picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it was as if Jesus were really talking to him and saying, "If you have to hit someone, hit me, because I can take it, and I will still love you!”
It was that kind of merciful love that changed him. In a real way, Jesus offered himself to take upon himself the sins of another, so that his brother might be freed from his sins. Jesus did not only forgive his sins, but Jesus took them upon himself. I think the same dynamic took place in this scene of the adulterous woman. It was really the woman who was on trial, because all those who had taken her to Jesus were convinced of her guilt and of the rightness of the punishment. They could have stoned her without taking her before Jesus. But it was really Jesus, and not so much the woman, who was on trial with this angry crowd. We hope that once they slinked away they were converted and realized they were sinners who could be healed by the mercy of Jesus just as much as the woman was. But we can also presume that some of them went away even angrier than before, since Jesus had thwarted them. And we might presume they actually nurtured resentment and hatred toward him, and were part of those we will see next week who condemned him to death. So in a very real way, Jesus did not only release the woman from her sin, but he took her sin upon himself, allowing himself to be the target, yet refusing to turn his love into hatred.
We might fall into the temptation of thinking that we can free ourselves of our sins, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and make ourselves whole. But the more we try to do that, the more we fail. But Jesus loves us enough that he will take our sins upon himself, so that, sacrificing himself for our salvation, we may truly be saved by the only one who can actually be our Savior. But we must be honest with him, making ourselves vulnerable, as did my friend and as did the woman in the Gospel. Although we cannot save ourselves, we have to make the effort to go to the One who can save us.
When we think of people who are addicted to pornography, alcohol, or drugs, we know how difficult it is for them to become free. One of the most successful programs for freeing addicts is modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, and the first steps are to admit that one has an addiction and that only a higher power can free one from it. This is how Jesus takes these sins upon himself, offering himself as the sacrificial victim so that he can free those who are addicted. When the process becomes frustrating and burdensome, they should not hesitate to turn to Jesus with their frustrations, because he can take it and will still love them. It is this kind of self-sacrificing love that can be truly healing.
Of course the risen Jesus, who acts in our day, works through his Body, the Church – all of us! And so we, too, need to be ready to sacrifice ourselves so that others can be freed. If a woman is struggling with her pregnancy and is thinking about abortion, we may be the way she decides to give birth if we sacrifice ourselves. Her parents and family may have to sacrifice the family reputation so that they take the hit and make it possible for her to have her child and maintain her dignity. Some may be called to adopt the baby or others called to help support her emotionally or financially in her struggles. These are burdens we take upon ourselves so that the child in her womb may live.
When we see so many homeless people who are burdened with the indignity of living on the streets and begging for their meals, we may take the hit of providing them food, or doing the even harder work of accompanying them to get on their feet so that they will no longer need to be homeless. It is easy to throw the stone of apathy and walk away, but a great sacrifice to take upon ourselves their burden.
Next week we begin Holy Week, when we are overwhelmed by how violently humanity treated – and still treats – Jesus; and also are stunned into conversion when we think of the suffering he put up with for us while still loving us. It is that great Paschal Mystery that will free us from death into life. It is that great liberating love that we are called to proclaim to all the world.