Today is St. Patrick’s day, and we have a new Pope named after St. Francis of Assisi, the first ever formally canonized saint in the Church. For those who know their Catholic faith, that means that there are multiple indulgences which could be obtained today, including a plenary indulgence. I was at Mass at St. Patrick’s Basilica today (though not with the intention of receiving the indulgence for being in the Church of the saint whose feast day it is, but just because that happens to be my church), and the liturgical readings included the infamous Pericope de Adultera:
“while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”
I was reflecting on this and I thought I’d immortalize my reflection by blogging about it (not that my thoughts are anything special). Often people have wondered about what Jesus wrote, and have observed how odd it would be that the Gospel tells us that he began writing in the sand if that act was not in response to what was going on, and had something to do with the reaction of the scribes. I have heard people suggest that Jesus was writing down the sins of the scribes and Pharisees present, as though to say that he knew that they were not innocent. Even though that sounds attractive initially, I think it would be morally unfitting for Christ to reveal the sins of the Scribes and Pharisees to everyone present, for the same reason the Catholic Church imposes the seal of confession so that Priests can never in any way reveal what has been said in the safety of the sacrament of confession to the public.
I think we can give a better guess though. I think it is likely, given the context, that Jesus was writing the words of the Torah (possibly beginning with Genesis, but perhaps he began with the laws, or with the law which suggests that a woman be stoned for adultery). Writing such words in the sand would signify a great deal, given how Holy the words of Torah were, and that scribes preferred to write them only on the best scrolls, and would copy each letter out meticulously so as to preserve it for all time. What Christ was doing was not demeaning the Torah by writing it in the sand, but rather indicating that the law was always intended to pass away, from dust into dust, and that it was intended to make way for a new covenant, present in the person and ministry of Christ himself. The Torah is fulfilled perfectly and brought to its fullness with Christ, and thus the observance of the laws becomes unnecessary when we fulfill what the Torah was written to orient us towards. Notice even in Christ’s attitude this seems evident, as he does not say that the woman should not be stoned, but points to the deeper problem: that no man can keep the law. This is precisely why Christ came, and this is what his act of not condemning the woman caught in the act of adultery signifies: that he has come to forgive and to redeem, calling us to a higher perfection than merely following the law, calling us to “go and sin no more.” One can imagine the wind blotting out what Christ wrote in the sand as the woman caught in adultery was forgiven.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
St. Patrick, pray for us.