HOMILY FOR MASS FOR 5TH SUNDAY LENT C + PARISH VISITATION
Ruth Elizabeth Davis – better known by her stage name ‘Bette Davis’ – is considered one of the greatest actresses ever. The first person nominated for five consecutive Academy Awards, she received many honours. She was noted for playing strong, often unsympathetic characters, across a wide range of genres, including crime melodramas, period films, suspense horror, comedies and romances. Her sardonic looks were immortalised by the 1981 song Bette Davis Eyes, and she was also noted for her quick wit and ready sarcasm. On one occasion, when asked about heaven, she responded by saying that ‘There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going.’ Jokes aside, Davis spoke for a not uncommon position that if the wrong sort of people are in heaven we’re not interested.
Poets and spiritual writers have long speculated on why Satan and his devils renounced heaven forever. In Jewish tradition, it was because God commanded the angels to bow down to Adam, a mere mortal, at his creation, and because when Adam finally died God promised resurrection and immortality to the children of men. This so appalled Satan and his allies among the pure spirits that they took their buckets and spades, or pitchforks and horns, and left for good. Milton spoke for the Christian tradition in Paradise Lost when he suggested it was because God commanded the angels to obey Christ who, though God, had united Himself to their inferior in the man Jesus and aimed to raise all human beings up to heaven. After the battle between the good angels and bad, on Milton’s account, Satan declared it’s ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’
Something similar happens in this morning’s Gospel (Jn 8:1-11). The authorities have set a trap for Jesus: if He condemns the adulteress to death, He’ll be breaking the Roman Law and His reputation for mercy; but if He absolves her, He will be breaking the Jewish Law and His reputation for righteousness. Either way He loses. But in this encounter between the true Law-giver and the supposed defenders of the Law, Jesus refuses to play the game. He switches focus: “Who are you to accuse and condemn?” He asks. “Which of you is without sin?”
It’s important to notice when this encounter happened. John tells us that it was during the Festival of Tabernacles (cf. Jn 7:2,10-11,14,37; 8:2) – ten holy days of repentance and purification, sometime in September/October. It includes what we now call Jewish New Year, as well as Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. During the ceremonies the High Priest would recite a verse from the Prophet Jerimiah: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” (Jer 17:13) So, when Jesus started writing in the dust, His accusers knew it was them – it was us – who would be judged, not the adulteress.
Not that Jesus ever sought to drive people away. No, today He is offering his very accusers heaven – or at least the keys to the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness of sins. Repent and enter, He says. But sadly, like Adam and Eve hiding, covering up, leaving Paradise, like Satan defiantly exiting heaven rather than honouring or serving his imagined inferior, so the accusers, on encountering justice and mercy incarnate in Jesus feel exposed and shamed, and depart rather than repent.
All but one depart. One stays, though her sins are like scarlet and have been laid bare for all to see. One stays, and does not excuse her faults. One stays and cries out κύριε ἐλέησον, Lord have mercy. St Augustine tagged the encounter ‘Misery meets Mercy’. Misery stands before Mercy in surrender and trust, as He absolves her from her sins and returns her past dignity, present self-respect and future hope.
Which brings me to your Parish of St Thomas More. As I complete my visitation of this parish I notice that there is much good happening here, including leadership and teaching, worship and devotions, outreach and groups. You have many long-standing ministries, such as liturgical, educational, catechetical and Vinnies work; recently you’ve tried Bible study, cultural cuisine days, new devotions and an upgraded projection system. But you are also aware that only about 1 in 6 Catholics is at Mass here on a Sunday. While we thank God and each of you for that, we ache for the absent 5 out of 6 and for the others who do not even have a church to be neglecting. We would also like to engage more actively with more youth. So we must all think how our parish can reach out better to our neighbours and draw them to Christ.
Many of you have shared your dreams for thus parish and your challenges with me. It seems you are more than happy with your Parish Priest. To help Father Manuel with new ideas and energy i have asked him to establish a fresh Parish Pastoral Council. So if he taps you on the shoulder to help him in that way, please say Yes!
Why bother? Because God keeps offering the people of Brighton-Le-Sands the possibility of heaven through His Word and Sacraments. Because God gives a foretaste of the communion of heaven to the people of Brighton-Le-Sands through the Eucharist. And because God offers the keys of heaven to the people of Brighton-Le-Sands through the ministry of reconciliation. All we have to do is honour and serve Christ, the God-and-man whom Satan would not honour or serve. And when we fail, all we have to do is join Misery in her encounter with Mercy, and hear with her those wonderful words of starting afresh: “Go, and sin no more.”
Not that sinning no more is easy, as St. Paul acknowledges in our Epistle (Phil 3:8-14). Indeed, he spent a whole lifetime following the Jewish Law and then Christ and still, he tells us, he’s not perfect. But he keeps running the good race. The parish of St Thomas More is here precisely to be your predecessors and contemporaries in the good race, your spiritual coaches, dieticians and physios. They are here to keep you focused on the finish line, and to encourage you never to give up. May you all keep striving “for the prize to which God calls us upwards”.
INTRODUCTION TO MASS FOR 5TH SUNDAY LENT C + PARISH VISITATION
St. Thomas More Church, Brighton-Le-Sands
Welcome to St Thomas More’s for this morning’s Solemn Mass for the 5th Sunday of Lent. This week I have conducted my canonical visitation of the Parish of Brighton-Le-Sands, and so been treated to several Masses and devotions, visits to various sites around the parish, and meetings with your parish priest and lay leaders of ministries, as well as with individual parishioners. I’ve also met with the leaders, staff, students, and parents of St Thomas More’s Primary School and I acknowledge with us this morning Our Principal Jenny Frost, Assistant Principal Jim Heelis and RE Coordinator Lisa Sharpley.
I thank Fr Manuel Santiago PP and parishioners for the very warm welcome I have received and commend you on so much good that is happening here in Brighton-Le-Sands. To everyone present this morning a very warm welcome!
 See The Life of Adam and Eve or The Apocalypse of Moses.
 Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk V, lines 654-68; cf. Isa 24:12-15.
 Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk I, lines 258-63.
 Augustine, On the Gospel of John, Bk XXXIII, 5. Cf. Pope Francis, Misericordia et misera: Apostolic Letter at the Conclusion of the Extraordinary year of Mercy (2016), 1.