The Gospel story tells us of the encounter between Christ and a woman “caught in adultery”. We might ponder this description: she is “caught”. She obviously was “caught” from without, by the Pharisees; but perhaps more so we can surmise that she herself was, first and foremost, “caught” from within. This woman is truly tangled-up in sin, bound within her heart.
It’s not so hard for we ourselves to relate to: seduced by attractive opportunities and giving-in to her passions, one sin had led to another and to another. Soon she’d become a “regular”. (We notice that the Pharisees had known right where to find her.) Having spent so much time in her state of sin, this woman was severely weakened, bound in her will by many now-corrupted desires. Long ago she had forfeited her ability to redirect her passions when temptation presented itself. She was easily seduced by her them—and by her inner loneliness. She could not refuse the sin. She was truly “caught in adultery”, and bound by the desires of the flesh. The image of God, originally stamped into the coin of her soul, had long since eroded with neglect, and now seemed to her—as to her accusers—all but vanished. The bible in fact gives her no other name; she is, quite simply, “The Woman Caught in Adultery”.
Pope Saint John Paul II described this universal experience in his Theology of the Body (cf. TOB 39:2). The desire to sin, thanks to concupiscence, is constantly flaring up in a person, invading his senses and arousing his body and its appetites. The desires gradually take possession of the heart. Over time, our pursuit of pleasure and freedom seduces us to slavery and inner depravity. Indulging for so long in the flesh, we cease to be capable of that true freedom and self-dominion for which Christ had set us free. Freely indulging in one’s lusts and passions becomes, in fact, the antithesis and the negation of authentic freedom (cf. TOB 53:3). Perhaps Isaiah’s images are all too fitting: a “desert”, a “wasteland”, our desires dominating us like “untamed wild beasts” and “jackals”.
However, the story does not end there. More than likely she herself was prepared to accept the condemnation of her judges—as her opportunity finally to end her miserable existence. She likely even expected something similar from this new Messiah figure, from whom they inquired about her due punishment. The one thing she did not expect, the thing she could not have fathomed, were the words that actually came from his mouth: “Go on living, and sin no more…”
How could this be? How indeed could this happen? How could she possibly free herself from her long-time chains? Once freed, who would she even be? …But that the command was spoken by Christ, the Divine Redeemer of Man. Christ’s word called her back to her original creation in God’s image. The heritage of our hearts is deeper than the sinfulness inherited, and Christ’s words reactivate that deepest inheritance and give it real power in human life (cf. TOB 46:6). At the Redeemer’s voice, which alone is capable of bringing the dead to life, she suddenly experienced the first fruits of his victorious Redemption—already at work within her. A new horizon now opened before her; and, from within her heart, his command found an echo and a foothold: “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore…” She did not dismiss it; she did not roll her eyes at such an unlikely prospect. She stood up, and her weakened will—now freed from its chains—stood up with her.
The change within her may have seemed all but imperceptible at first; yet, placing her hope in His command, she stepped forward onto the waves of her yet unexplored new life. Over time, his victory quickly became more real and more certain than the memory of her sins. Her smile began to return, as her free will began to live-out the truth foretold by Isaiah: “I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way; in the wasteland, rivers. I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland! The wild beasts honor me!” This woman’s life now became an echo of today’s psalm: “It is God who brings forth the captive from bondage…”
Christ’s victory in our hearts is real, more so than the victories of our sins. “In the real struggle between good and evil, man proves to be stronger thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, who, working from within the human spirit, causes its [once-corrupted] desires to bear fruit in the good” (cf. TOB 51:6). This new life in Christ actually renders the sinner capable of a re-integrated life of soul and body by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his entire body-person.
This woman—and all of us with her—was invited, challenged, and truly enabled to “consider not the things of long ago, and remember not the things of the past”. Hers would be the experience of St Paul and of all those who begin to grow in communion with Christ. “Though I have not yet attained perfect maturity,…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit… in [the sure] hope that I may attain it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus”.
“Go and sin no more, O woman possessed by Christ!” Today, alongside St Paul and all the saints, this woman is fully alive in the freedom of Christ. The impossible was made possible, and she is given back her true identity and her true name. May we too hear that command of Christ and see it effective in transforming even the utter depths of our sinful nature. May all of those “caught” in their sins, experience his victory untangling their soul and empowering them to respond to his command: “Go, and sin no more.”
Fr. Stephen Dardis was ordained a priest in 2012 for the Legionaries of Christ, with a Bachelors in Theology and a Licentiate in Philosophy. He currently serves as Associate Pastor for Our Lady of Lourdes Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.