By Fr. Vincent Freeh

In Chapter Seven of the Gospel according to St. Luke we find the story about The Penitent Woman. A certain Pharisee had invited Jesus to dine with him. Jesus went to the Pharisee’s home and reclined to eat. A woman known to be a public sinner heard of it, “brought in a vase of perfumed oil and stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping so that her tears fell upon his feet.” The woman wiped his feet with her hair, kissing them and perfuming them with the oil.

According to Luke, when the Pharisee saw what was happening, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is that touches him–that she is a sinner.” In response, Jesus then presented his host with the case of two men in debt to a certain moneylender, one for a total of five coins, the other five hundred coins. Since neither was able to repay, he wrote off both debts. Jesus asked which of the two was more grateful to him. Simon answered, “He, I presume, to whom he remitted the larger sum.” Jesus said to him, “You are right.”

Turning to the woman, he said to Simon: “You see this woman? I came to your home, and you provided me with no water for my feet. She has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume. I tell you, that is why her many sins are forgiven because of her great love. Little is forgiven whose love is small” (Lk 7: 47)

Luke gives us the name of the host-Simon, the Pharisee but he does not reveal the name of the public sinner. No doubt she was still among the living, and Luke would not want to have her exposed to rash judgment. According to Church tradition the public sinner was Mary Magdalene. In Christian Art, she is bent over with grief at the feet of Jesus as he died on the cross. She is mentioned in all four Gospels among the women at the Crucifixion and identified by John the Evangelist as the first disciple Jesus had met after his resurrection. Described in detail by John, once more we find her weeping, this time at the empty tomb. She peered into the tomb and saw two angels, one at the head and one at the foot of where the body of Jesus had lain.

“Woman,” they asked her, “why are you weeping?” She answered them, “Because the Lord has been taken away, and I do not know where they have put him.” She had no sooner said this than she turned around and caught sight of Jesus standing there. But she did not know him “Woman, why are you weeping? Who si ti you are looking for?” Her eyes flooded with tears, she supposed ti was the gardener, so she said, “Sir if you are the one who carried him off, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned to him and said ni [Hebrew], “Rabbuoni!” (meaning Teacher). Jesus then said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Rather, go to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God!” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she announced. Then she reported what he had said to her” (Jn 20: 11-18).

These two readings from Scripture are especially meaningful for Lent. They refer to the transformation that takes place in the practice of repentance and remind us of the Paschal Mysteries—the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the momentous events that brought Christ’s work of redemption to its completion. From their very beginning, this summation of core beliefs served as the foundation on which the Faith and the Church were built. Even now it still describes the relationship between God and humankind and the intangible and paramount reality we know as love. As human beings we are moral agents- embodied spirits made in the image and likeness of God, endowed with intellect and free will, faculties enhanced with an emotional nature based on sensate knowledge which enables us to love.

Nothing in life compares to the significance of love, and no love can be compared to the Love revealed in the Paschal Mysteries wherein God’s Love for us is made manifest and our graced acceptance becomes a divinized return of God’s Love. In short, we are deified in the very acceptance of God’s Love!

So, since God is Perfection, God’s Love is indivisible and unconditional. Our love is divided and, in many ways, conditional. Yet we read in the Bible: “So, be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This means our love must be unconditional just like God’s. In any case, there can be no exception because receiving unconditional love conditionally is impossible.

The First letter of John explains it in these words: “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, ‘We have not sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I Jn :1 8-10).

Then John tells us what transpires in accord with God’s plan: “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (I Jn 4: 9b-10). Thus, “Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God” (I Jn 4: 15-16).

Long before Shakespeare penned his dramatic alternative: “To be or not to b et h a t is the question” (Hamlet Act 3) . ..” Moses had said, “Here, then, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom” (Deuteronomy 30: 15). The choice was between the commandments of the Lord and serving other gods. From our viewpoint, given the Paschal Mysteries, it becomes clear that more is at stake than life and death, and more than the freedom that comes with obeying the commandments which preserve love and keep us from enslavement to selfishness and sin.

The Liturgy on Holy Saturday describes what is at issue in these words: “O admirabile commercium! To translate this statement about “commerce” into ordinary English, we would say: “Oh, what a deal!” Jesus chose to share in our humanity that we might share in his divinity! Describing the acceptance of God’s love as a transaction accentuates its urgency and its reality in life unavoidable and utterly definitive, determining if we do or do not accept God’s love.

The First Letter of John as relevant to Lent makes it clear that our first concern is to recognize that we are sinners, not as a put down but as reality. The stakes are clear and what we are to do as well: repent! We also hear that we are to pray, fast, and give alms or help the needy and the poor. Why?

If we see the emphasis on these basic practices in our spiritual life as meant to improve the way we live our faith, to some extent, that may take place. If we find this encouragement to devote more time and intensity to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as an answer our ongoing need for repentance, we will likely find ourselves more in touch with reality, struck with more sorrow for our sins, and more aware of being unable to make progress in our spiritual life without reliance on God’s grace. If we understand the factual mystery (love) in the workings of God’s mercy and justice and rely on the sufferings Christ endured in his expiation and atonement for our sins, we undoubtedly will become more one with Jesus in who we are and in what we do. More pointedly, if you do what Jesus was doing in the Paschal Mysteries, what Mary Magdalene was doing in the house of Simon, and what the Poor Souls are doing in Purgatory, you will come to an active appreciation for the wonders of unconditional love and surpass all expectations you might have for your observance of Lent and for the celebration of Easter. You also will have recovered the Lenten Treasure: the appropriate practice of Reparation, not because God needs it, but because we do!

The Gospels do not give us an explicit definition of unconditional love. Instead, they present the life and words of Jesus. For example, he said: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). You will find no conditions in that statement nor any ambivalence in Christ’s life. He clearly said and did what he said: “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve—to give his life in ransom for the many” (Mk 10: 45). To know beyond doubt that God had no need and sought no gain in the coming of Jesus, we need only to consider the terse explanation by Jesus that: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2: 27). This clarification by Jesus does not put humans above or beneath the “day of rest” but makes all humans the very reason for it! ‘The Pharisees saw this not only as heresy but as blasphemy. The sabbath could have nothing to do with kindness, mercy, forgiveness, or common sense; it was tobe focused exclusively on honoring God. Why?

Mark took up this issue early in his Gospel when Jesus was in a synagogue and a man with a withered hand was also in attendance. He called the man forward and asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” They remained silent. Jesus, angry and grieved at their hardness of heart said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death”(Mk 3: 1-6).

The fact that the Pharisees and Herodians—sworn enemies—were plotting together revealed the intensity and the diabolical nature of their animosity against Jesus. That Jesus continued to keep healing on the sabbath despite the death threats revealed both his boundless love and the sharp difference between his interpretation of the sabbath observance and that of the Pharisees. Nowhere was this difference more manifest than when the Pharisees and the Pharisaical chief priests, scribes, and elders paraded back and forth in front of Jesus dying on the cross, joining in the jeering as they chanted, “Let’s see him comedown from that cross and then we will believe in him” (Mt 27: 42b)! They were prepared to accept a selfish redeemer made in their likeness, but not one who was the very mage of God and who had said of himself, “… whoever sees me sees the one who sent me” (Jn 12: 45).

This brings us back to the Paschal Mysteries. By reason and from personal experience, we know damaged relationships must be repaired. We naturally feel unable to restore an authentic friendship without making up for the wrongs we have done. The same is true in our relationship with God, but here we do not have the capacity to make amends for what is an infinitely grievous offense. Jesus, as God Incarnate with a sensate nature that enables humans to suffer, takes the blame for us and offers his suffering in a sacrificial act of love in recompense for our sins and those of humankind.

If we are to appreciate the gravity of our sins and the magnitude of God’s unconditional mercy and love, we must be aware of the extreme sufferings Christ endured in his atonement and expiation for our sins so we could be reconciled with the Father. There are those who wonder how the Triune God could ask or allow Jesus to experience such excruciating physical pain and emotional trauma that just contemplating the ignominy, the humiliation, and the rejection in this plan caused him to pray in these words from Luke:

 ‘Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.’ An angel then appeared to him from heaven to strengthen him. In his anguish he prayed with all the greater intensity, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. Then he rose from prayer and came to his disciples, only to find them asleep, exhausted with grief. (Lk 22: 42-45)

When Jesus asked the Father if the cup could be passed, we can think there were options within the demands of divine justice. For example, theologians tell us a single drop of Christ’s Precious Blood could have provided ample recompense for all the sins of humankind. Or God the Father could have issued a legal pardon for all repentant sinners; but these options would not have made us aware of the enormity of our sins and of the infinite magnitude of God’s mercy and love. The scourging, the crowning with thorns, the physical pain on the cross, the thirst and the gasping for each breath, the mockery and the manifest rejection, indeed, all else that Jesus suffered was exceeded by the anguish he experienced when his atonement required that he be deprived of what is known as the beatific vision or his ongoing human awareness of the presence of God. “At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock, Jesus cried out ni a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mt 27:46). [Pause for a moment and imagine hearing that haunting and desperate cry in the darkness emanating from the parched and tightly constricted throat of Jesus …] Ironically, Jesus, for whom nothing apart from God can be or have meaning, dies for us humans for whom everything other than God seems to be more important. Yet Jesus left nothing undone as our Savior and Redeemer to save us from death, to pay the debt for our sins, and to repair our broken relationship with God and be reconciled with the Father. Why? Go back to the five coins and the five hundred coins in the words of Jesus to Simon the Pharisee: “her many sins are forgiven—because of her great love.”

Our repentance also must be rooted in and filled to overflowing with humility and gratitude, the two key components in a response to unconditional love. The same is true for making reparation as exemplified by Mary Magdalene in washing the feet of Jesus:

  • Known as a public sinner, though probably not as a common prostitute but as a high-class and very profitable practitioner: she had been set free by Jesus from not one but seven devils.
  • Hence, it is quite likely that she had a “respectable” reputation among her wealthy clients.
  • But the first thing we should see in her reparation is now she knows she was and is a sinner.
  • Most importantly, she is caring for his feet not because Jesus needed it but because she did.
  • What she is doing is unconditional.
  • Finally, she is not merely remorseful but truly sorry for her sins did to the Heart of Jesus.

We have reason to believe that Mary Magdalene was intelligent, resourceful, and good at rationalizing her behavior. We also can believe she was profoundly repentant and transformed by the mercy and forgiveness she received from Jesus. She was not merely remorseful for what she had done but truly sorry for what her sins had done to Jesus. We know this from her copious tears. For comparison, Peter denied Christ and was sorry for offending Jesus. He also cried and repented. Judas regretted what he had done but being self-absorbed and remorseful he just got angry. Then he went and hanged himself.

Remorse is a monologue; sorrow is a dialogue; reparation is heart-to-heart. Reparation does what it did to Mary Magdalene: it focused her on Jesus, not on herself. It is liberating, transforming, empowering, and saturated with humility and gratitude. It is in full accord with the first principle that grace perfects nature as illustrated in the parable about the two men who went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee took up a prominent position “and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity-greedy, dishonest, adulterous-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I pay tithes on my whole income. “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner. “I tell you the latter went home justified, not the former” (Lk 18: 11-14). In the same spirit of repentance and reparation we can pray, fast, and give alms, recovering the lost Lenten Treasure.

There were those who thought consoling Jesus was more important than making reparation for our sins. That intent put them in the company of the Pharisee. If you can imagine how much the Father’s Love meant for Jesus, well . . . you can finish the thought yourself. I can tell you reparation frees us from our sin, gives us a clear sense of identity with a strong sense of purpose as it prepares us as it did Mary Magdalene to serve the Church and to be so filled with the wonder of Christ’s love as to desire that it be known and shared with everyone we can reach.

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