HE LORD SAID, “I am doing something new” (Isaiah 43:19). What an appropriate passage for us to hear during this week in which our Church received a new leader. There are a lot of new things about Pope Francis: the first non-European in many centuries, the first from the New World, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name “Francis.” That is certainly a lot of change.
Anytime there is new leadership, people wonder what might change. We have seen already, in just a few days, some of the changes Pope Francis has made. For instance, the news makes a big deal out of the fact that the Holy Father did not wear the red mozzetta when he appeared on the balcony. They also picked right up on the story that he went back to his hotel to pick up his own bags and pay his bill.
Then there are all those other things the media want to see changed: no more priestly celibacy; the sanctioning of abortion and birth control; the admission of women to Holy Orders; support for homosexual partnerships. This confuses me. If the Church woke up one morning and changed her teaching on any of those things, we should all be deeply disturbed. One of two things would have to be true to make sense of that. The first explanation would be that truth has changed—that what was once wrong is now right. That fails to make reasonable sense. The second explanation would be that the Church throughout time has simply been misguided and has taught error, leading people into sin. That, too, fails to resonate with me, since the Church is the design of Christ and our holy Mother. Either of these explanations is disturbing, and any church that would submit to either of these two hypotheses is a church I don’t want to embrace. In fact, we should all run away screaming from any group that would hold either claim.
Those changes will never happen and never should. But there is plenty of change that needs to happen. The Church is actually in the business of change—not of changing dogma, but of changing hearts. If you think Pope Francis is making changes, check out what our Lord does in John, chapter 8.
There, the evangelist recounts an episode in which the Pharisees try to catch Jesus in an impossible situation. They bring Him an adulterous woman and point out that Mosaic law would have them stone her to death. They ask the Lord: “What do You say?” If He commands them to stone her, He will be accused of strict cruelty. Conversely, if He commands anything else, He will be accused of laxity. So, how does the Lord respond? He does something brilliantly new. “Let the one among you who is without sin,” He says, “be the first to throw a stone at her.” He shifts the focus from judgment to introspection, from condemnation to mercy, from legalism to love. Now that is “doing something new”!
Just as the tablets received by Moses on Mount Sinai were said to be “inscribed by the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:10), so now Jesus writes in the sand “with His finger.” By imitating the revelation at Sinai, Jesus teaches the Pharisees that He speaks with the same authority that underlies the Commandments of old. He reveals, moreover, that He is establishing a New Law, which is a law of love. He also shows that He has come to give us the Holy Spirit—the living “Finger” of God (digitus Dei)—and only in this Spirit can the true commands of God be lived: love and mercy.
Jesus avoids being trapped by the religious professionals of His day through His wise, though enigmatic, response. There seems to be no hesitance on His part in establishing this New Law. The Lord shows that He is at once novel and traditional. He is unpredictable yet reliable. He is young and old. He is unchanging yet relevant. He is simultaneously surprising and steady. Ancient though He may be, the Lord remains always fresh and ready to work new wonders.
We are very fortunate to have both a pope and a Savior who do not feel bound to do things “the way we have always done them.” They are, after all, the bearer of Good News, so they should not be afraid to shatter the expectations of the world. By His innovative response to the Pharisees, Jesus is able to spare the adulterous woman from the pressing crowd. Instead of being crushed by their stones, the woman’s sins were crushed by the weight of Jesus’ astonishing mercy.
The Lord not only does something new, but He also gives her the opportunity to do something new. She is given the chance to live a new life, sing a new song, and walk a new path. The same opportunities are available to us all.