Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Popular Catholic spirituality and piety in Ireland

Patrick Comerford and a group of Chinese Church leaders after meeting Pope Benedict XVI at Saint Peter’s in the Vatican ... how do we rerspond to popular Catholic spirituality and piety in our ministry?

Patrick Comerford


For some of you, the primary context of your future ordained ministry is going to be within a society and culture where the majority of people may not be “practising Catholics” but have certainly been shaped spiritually by popular Roman Catholic spirituality and piety.

For all of you, you will across this popular Catholic spirituality and piety in the course of your parish ministry. You will be invited into neighbouring churches, into neighbours’ homes and into the homes of parish families where there are inter-Church families, into schools within your parish, and to take part in funerals and other Church services.

For some of you, these invitations may raise some theological questions. But theological questions do not always overlap with the experiential and social questions that are going to arise for you.

This afternoon I want to talk less about theological differences and more about what you can expect to encounter and how to reflect on your feelings and how on how other people express their faith.

The immediate context:

Much of what we think of as popular Catholic spirituality and piety in Ireland is beginning to fade and dissipate. And this was mentioned strongly in Pope Benedict XVI’s Pastoral Letter … to the Catholics of Ireland last weekend, in which he noted “the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society” and said that “fast-paced social change” has taken place, “often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.”

“All too often,” he says, “the traditional and devotional practices that sustain faith,” including “frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats” have been neglected.

Question: Have you read this document? Have you listened to how other people have responded to it?

Pope Benedict XVI ... says in his letter “Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope.”

There is much in this document that could be articulated by the most convinced evangelicals. For example, he says: “Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope.”

And he says “it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” And he continues: “He [Christ] loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart.“

He invited Irish Catholics “to reaffirm your faith in Christ, your love of his Church and your confidence in the Gospel's promise of redemption, forgiveness and interior renewal. In this way, you will demonstrate for all to see that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” He urged them to follow “the path of conversion, purification and reconciliation.”

All of this would fit comfortably with evangelicals who read this pastoral letter. But he also calls on Irish Catholics to return to traditional Catholic practices, among which he refers specifically to Friday penances, fasting, Scripture reading, “works of mercy,” and “Eucharistic adoration.” He recalls devotions to traditional Catholic saints such as Saint John Mary Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, who is held up as model of priesthood. And in his closing prayer he invokes Mary as “Queen of Ireland, our Mother,” and Irish saints, especially Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid.

When we talk about popular Catholic piety and how much has changed, it is not just the Pope who has noticed how much has changed. Yet, popular Catholic practices still inform many people when it comes to shaping their images of and their standards for Christian belief and practice..

Popular perceptions:

In terms of how Irish Roman Catholics see their unique expression of faith, it is worth returning to our Church History module from last year, and remembering that for many Irish Catholics have seen their particular expression of Christianity shaped by their history.

Their inherited identity has been shaped by their inherited memory of Oliver Cromwell, 18th century persecutions after the Battle of the Boyne, the penal laws, Mass Rocks and the struggle for Catholic Emancipation.

Questions: Can you see similar strands that have shaped Protestant identity in Ireland? What about the Boyne? What about the penal laws for Presbyterians? What about 1641 and our continuing sense of being a people under siege expressed in a fondness for the Canticle Urbs Fortitudinis, even in very rural areas.

But it even goes beyond that, and even further back. Irish Roman Catholics see themselves as the true heirs to the Celtic Church. Saint Patrick is always bested in the robes of a Tridentine bishop, you will sometimes still here people saying things like “This was a Catholic church/cathedral before the Protestants took it.”

Sometimes this has resulted in a Catholic monopoly note so much on Patrick as a name, but on names such as Bridget, Colmcille &c. Of course, there are other names that are identifiably Catholic, such as Mary (in many cases), Theresa (in most cases) and John-Paul (in virtually all cases).

But Irish Catholics can often think that they are the true heirs to the Round Towers and the Holy Wells, and the only ones to have the right to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Who could imagine a team with a name like Glasgow Celtic having Protestant supporters?

Question: But don’t we claim to be the “Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland?

Unique beliefs:

So, in terms of difference and identity let me say that there are a few doctrinal differences that define and can separate us.

1. Papal infallibility (1870):

The First Vatican Council declared that the Pope was infallible when he defined that a doctrine concerning faith or morals was part of the deposit of divine revelation handed down from the apostolic tradition.

Papal infallibility has been invoked retrospectively Immaculate Conception (1854). This was promulgated by Pope Pius IX. It is often confused in Catholic popular thinking with the Virgin birth of Christ. But in fact it teaches that “from the first moment of her conception the Blessed Virgin Mary was … kept free from all stain of original sin.”

Papal infallibility has also been invoked for the teaching on the Assumption (1950), which claims that on her death Mary the Mother of Christ “was in body and soul assumed into heavenly glory.”

Questions: In the event of future Christian unity, are others expected to accept these “infallible” declarations? If it was acceptable for Roman Catholics not to accept them up to 1870, why should others have to accept them as part of the price of unity?

2. Purgatory and limbo:

In Roman Catholic teaching, Purgatory is the place where the souls of those who have died in grace await the purification of sins already forgiven and expiation for sins as yet unforgiven.

The 39 Articles condemn the “Romish” doctrine of purgatory (Article 22), but there are Anglican and some Protestant theologians who discuss and even accept the existence of an intermediate state of purification and the values of prayers for the dead.

Question: How does this relate to your understanding of redemption and salvation, and the relation between faith and works?

Limbo was seen as the abode if souls excluded from the full blessedness of the beatific vision, but not condemned to eternal punishment. Limbo is not taught an official doctrine. But I remember the distress of the mother of an unbaptised child who had died decades ago who, on hearing this, wanted to know where her unbaptised baby had gone. Was she in hell? Se had been told she could not go to heaven.

3. Contraception, abortion, divorce.

These are seen as not so much dogmatic differences, as differences in teaching, and have had a strong impact on political debates and legislation in the Republic of Ireland and in other places where there has been a Roman Catholic majority.

Questions: Is the problem with the Roman Catholic teaching on contraception one of moral difference, or one of how papal authority is exercised? Is there a difference of emphasis in the views held by many evangelicals about divorce and abortion?

Unique popular beliefs:

Although they may not be a full part and parcel of Roman Catholic official teachings, there are some popular beliefs that are almost unique to popular Catholic spirituality and piety.

This includes teachings about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We shall return to these in a few moments.

Church decorations:

Inside most Roman Catholic churches you will notice a number of differences from your average Church of Ireland parish churches. These may include confession boxes, Stations of the Cross, sanctuary lights, votive candles, and side altars and shrines.

Question: Have you seen any of these in Anglican churches?

Popular church devotions:

We think of the worship of the Church being expressed primarily in Sunday services, particularly the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Morning and Evening Prayer, and perhaps a Service of the Word. You might add to that other Services such as Baptism, Confirmation, Weddings and Funerals. Roman Catholics are often fascinated by and love attending our Harvest Thanksgiving Services and Remembrance Day Services.

But in Roman Catholic Churches, while there is seldom anything equivalent to Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in a parish church, you will come across other services, such as Benediction, 40 hours Adoration, Novenas (honouring the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary), Prayer Services for Sodalities and Third Orders, and so on.

And there will be special masses for feast days, including 15 August (the Assumption) and 8 December (the Immaculate Conception).

Because of this array, you may often hear various services described as ceremonies, and because Roman Catholics are wary about using the word “Mass” to describe our Eucharist/Holy Communion, they may often describe everything or anything that happens in our churches as “a lovely ceremony.”

Popular devotions and the saints:

The Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus ... images of the Virgin Mary and of Christ that are popular in Catholic piety in Ireland

Among those special days is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which falls on the Friday that falls 19 days after Pentecost. This has been marked since 1856, when it was placed in the calendar of the French bishops. Remember that this was less than a decade after the Communards had been slaughtered in Paris, and the Church of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre stands on the site of that massacre. So you can see devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary were brought to Ireland by French religious orders of priests and nuns, usually without the particular association they have in France with French royalism and conservatism.

Devotion to Mary as the Immaculate Heart is linked to the Miraculous Medal, a practice that developed in France from 1830, and also has associations with French royalism that have been lost in popular Irish Catholic piety.

Another Marian devotion is to Mary as the Mother of Perpetual Succour, and there is a particular icon associated with this devotion that was made popular in Ireland by the Redemptorists.

You may also have become aware of the popularity of Saint Teresa of Lisieux (1873-1897), a popular French Carmelite nun, whose bones were recently brought on tours of Ireland and Britain; Padre Pio, whose image decorates so many taxis and cars; Martin de Porres, a black South American friar popularised by the Dominicans; and Gerard Majella, often invoked by women hoping to become pregnant.

Questions: Who are your favourite heroes of the Anglican way of telling the faith story? Is your parish church named after a saint?

Popular domestic devotions:

Popular domestic devotions are often Marian in emphasis. These include the Angelus, and the Rosary. You still find statues at home, especially of Mary and of Christ as the “Infant of Prague.” Sometimes you may see home altars with Sacred Heart lamps, and perhaps “holy water fonts” at front doors.

This domestic piety often extends into popular public devotions, with wayside statues, crosses and shrines, and finds expression at times in street names. There is a group of people who regularly pray the Rosary in public at a Marian statue in Templeogue.

You may also notice people wearing medals and scapulars and carrying rosary beads in their pockets and purses, or having statues on the dashboards of their cars

Popular observances:

Friday fasting usually meant Irish Catholics ate fish rather than meat on Fridays. Hence the popularity of fish and chips as a Friday meal. I was staying once in a monastery, and told them before than I was a vegetarian. The kitchen staff couldn’t understand why I didn’t eat fish instead of meat.

People are often conscious of Saints’ Days, even if they are not observed, although less conscious of their name day than Greeks, Italians or Spaniards, for example.

And Ash Wednesday, Lent and Holy Week continue to be observed in a manner that most Anglicans have forgotten, despite the recommendations in the Book of Common Prayer.

What happens at funerals:

How do you behave with respect and good manners at removals and Funeral Masses? What do you think those funeral ceremonies mean for the people there?

And the differences also appear in death notices (RIP) and on grave stones, or in the observance of the month’s mind and in anniversary Masses.

Question: How do you feel about taking part in funerals and burials like this? Have you been to an anniversary Mass?

Popular public folk religion:

Popular public folk religion often finds its expression in popular Catholic rituals such as the blessings of boats and arbours, as in Galway Harbour and for the Dingle boats, with the blessing of animals, cars and houses, and even with the Archbishop of Cashel being asked to throw in the ball at an All-Ireland final.

Public expressions of piety in May processions and Corpus Christi processions seem to be dying out. But the beliefs behind those practices remains in the public consciousness.

Other distinctive popular beliefs may include beliefs in miraculous healing powers of saintly figures such as Padre Pio or objects such as the Shroud of Turin or Lourdes Water.

Question: You may never be asked to throw in the ball to start an All-Ireland final. But you may well be invited to the blessing of boats and animals. How would you pray?

Popular pilgrimages and retreats:

Popular pilgrimages in Ireland are often focussed on Patrician or Marian places of devotion. They include climbing Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo on the last Sunday in July Reek Sunday), pilgrimages to Knock, Co Mayo (since 1879), and retreats and visits to Lough Derg (Saint Patrick’s Purgatory) in Co Donegal.

Outside Ireland they include: Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, Medjugorje in Croatia and Rome.

Questions: Can there ever be an ecumenical dimension to these days? Where would you go on pilgrimage or retreat? Have you ever visited Walsingham?

Monastic and convent life:

The Franciscan Friary in Wexford seen through the gates of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rowe Street Wexford ... many friary and monastic churches are held in greater affection than parish churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sometimes, people still go on retreats to monasteries such as Rostrevor, Co Down, Glenstal, Co Limerick, Mount Mellary, Co Waterford, and Roscrea, Co Tipperary.

But there is also a positive end enduring affection for religious orders. They are seen as having left a positive legacy through their schools, hospitals and mission work. Religious orders such as the Jesuits, Redemptorists and Passionists are remembered for parish retreats and missions.

People often opt to go to Sunday mass in churches associated with religious orders. The church attached to the Franciscan Friary in Wexford is often seen as the parish church of the town. There is similar affection for the Augustinian churches in towns and cities such as Drogheda, New Ross and Galway. The Carmelite Church in Aungier Street (Whitefriar Street), the Capuchin Church in Church Street (Saint Michan’s) and the Augustinian Church in Thomas Street (John’s Lane) have particular affection in the hearts of working class people in Dublin.

In the past, there was also a large membership of “Third Orders” of Capuchins, Carmelites and, Franciscans

Returning to popular myth and inherited memories, there is often the idea that the religious orders courageously maintained Catholic faith throughout the days of the Penal Laws, and that they never abandoned the people?

Question: Have you ever been to Rostrevor or Glenstal? Where is your pre-ordination retreat? Do you think other Anglican provinces are blessed by the stronger presence of monastic communities and religious orders?

Popular organisations:

Particular Catholic organisations, usually organised by lay people, include the Knights of Columbanus, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), the Legion of Mary, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the Order of Malta.

Questions: How many of these do you know of? What do you think their role is? How do you think Roman Catholic popularly perceive the Orange and Loyal orders or Masonic organisations?

Papal devotion:

Many homes may display pictures of Pope John XXIII or Pope John Paul II. Aside from any discussion about Papal Infallibility, and despite the present crises in Irish Roman Catholicism, there is an enduring affection for the office of the Papacy and for the person who holds it.

This affection was strengthened by the papal visit to Ireland in 1979. Within nine months, there was a increase in the number of children named John-Paul. But this also explains the past popularity of names such as Pius, Leo and Benedict.

Many Irish people would genuinely welcome a visit by Pope Benedict to Ireland. Many still send away for a papal blessing for their wedding, and visitors to Rome often return with a paper conveying papal blessings.

On public occasions, streets in town may be decorated with flags and buntings in the papal colours of White and Yellow. Because of this association, it is difficult to many people in the Republic to deal with the Irish flag being described by Northern Loyalists not as the Green, White and Orange, but as the Green, White and Yellow.

Religion and politics:

Some of you may be aware of the role of the AOH in Northern nationalist politics. But in the past in the Republic, the Knights of Columbanus have also played a role politically in referendums on divorces, contraception and abortion, and in shaping hospital ethics.

But Catholic nationalism is not unique to Ireland. It has difficult associations with both French royalism and Croatian nationalism, for instance.

Another angle:

At the other end of the spectrum, there are many Catholics who naturally, out of their spirituality and piety, engaged with the Catholic equivalent of a Social Gospel agenda.

For many of them, this has been shaped by the missionaries and the religious orders, with their mission work, their advocacy on behalf of the Developing World and Development issues. The Development Forum of Irish Aid in the Department of Foreign Affairs invited be to be am meber for four years because of my links with mission agencies. In many ways the missionaries shaped Irish foreign policy at many points.

There is a continuing tradition of social engagement that dates back to the establishment of schools and hospitals. Many Catholic schools today, such as Blackrock and Rockwell (Spiritans), Belvedere, Clongowes and Gonzaga (Jesuits), Roscrea (Cistercians) or Gormanston (Franciscans), may be in danger of being seen by outsiders as school for the elite. But they have done great work in conveying Catholic social values to successive generations.

Official agencies of the Catholic bishops, such as Trocaire in Ireland, or Cafod and Progessio in Britain, continue to push out the boats for radical social consciences that are formed by faith and theology.

I imagine many Roman Catholics sit more comfortably with Liberation Theology than do many evangelical Protestants. Even in popular Catholic piety and spirituality that does not think in clear theological categories, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be seen as a saint, not because of her prayers (and she was a conservative Catholic) but because her life bore testimony to her faith.

Concluding remarks:

Archbishop Oscar Romero ... murdered 30 years ago on 24 March 1980

Today is the 30th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador. In his final homily, on 24 March 1980, he said: “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies … The harvest comes because of the grain that dies … We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustices and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”

Popular Catholic piety and spirituality may seem alien, or at least different, to many of you. But it has sustained people, not only in Ireland but in Poland, in many parts of Eastern Europe, and in many parts of Latin America, through generations of suffering and adversity. And rather than seeing it as an alternative to our own expressions of faith, we could see as the packaging that has cosseted and cushioned and protected that evangelical faith that was at the core of many of the things being said about Catholic faith last weekend by Pope Benedict XVI.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture/seminar on the Year III BTh course, “Spirituality for Today,” on Wednesday 24 March 2010.

Saint John’s Gospel (14): John 7: 53 to John 8: 11

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery (Guercino, 1621, Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Patrick Comerford

53 Καὶ ἐπορεύθησανἕκαστος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ, 1 Ἰησοῦς δὲ ἐπορεύθη εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν. 2 Ὄρθρου δὲ πάλιν παρεγένετο εἰς τὸ ἱερόν, καὶ πᾶς ὁλαὸς ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ καθίσας ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς. 3 ἄγουσιν δὲ οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοιγυναῖκα ἐπὶ μοιχείᾳ κατειλημμένην, καὶ στήσαντες αὐτὴν ἐν μέσῳ 4 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, αὕτη ἡγυνὴ κατείληπται ἐπ' αὐτοφώρῳ μοιχευομένη: 5 ἐν δὲ τῷ νόμῳ ἡμῖν Μωϋσῆς ἐνετείλατο τὰς τοιαύταςλιθάζειν: σὺ οὖν τί λέγεις; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγον πειράζοντες αὐτόν, ἵνα ἔχωσιν κατηγορεῖν αὐτοῦ.

ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς κάτω κύψας τῷ δακτύλῳ κατέγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν. 7 ὡς δὲ ἐπέμενον ἐρωτῶντες αὐτόν, ἀνέκυψενκαὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ὁ ἀναμάρτητος ὑμῶν πρῶτος ἐπ' αὐτὴν βαλέτω λίθον: 8 καὶ πάλιν κατακύψας ἔγραφενεἰς τὴν γῆν. 9 οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες ἐξήρχοντο εἷς καθ' εἷς ἀρξάμενοι ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων, καὶ κατελείφθημόνος, καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἐν μέσῳ οὖσα. 10 ἀνακύψας δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Γύναι, ποῦ εἰσιν; οὐδείς σεκατέκρινεν; 11 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, Οὐδείς, κύριε. εἶπεν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδὲ ἐγώ σε κατακρίνω: πορεύου, [καὶ] ἀπὸ τοῦνῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.

53 Then each of them went home,

1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 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. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 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. 7 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.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, 11 ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’


The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not include John 7: 53 to John 8: 11 in the Fourth Gospel. Many early manuscripts omit this story, and there is some confusion about where it belongs.

This periscope is not found in its canonical place in any of the earliest surviving Greek Gospel manuscripts. It is not found in the two third century papyrus witnesses to John, P66 and P75. Nor is it found in the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus or the Codex Vaticanus. However, all four manuscripts appear to acknowledge the existence of the passage through the use diacritical marks at the spot.

From an early date it was customary throughout the Greek Church to read John 7: 37-8: 12 on the Day of Pentecost, but omitting 7: 53-8: 11, and concluding with John 8: 12. Two early church Fathers, Saint John Chrysostom (345-407) and Saint Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), in commenting on Saint John’s Gospel, pass straight from John 7: 52 to John 8: 12.

However, the pericope adulterae was probably present in this place Saint John’s Gospel in many Greek manuscripts in Alexandria and other places from the fourth Century onwards. The first surviving Greek manuscript to contain the pericope is the Codex Bezae, in Latin Greek, dating from the late fourth or early fifth century.

Jerome reports that the pericope adulterae was to be found in this place in “many Greek and Latin manuscripts” in Rome and in the Latin West in the late fourth century. This is confirmed by the consensus of Latin Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, including Ambrose and Augustine.

Augustine said these verses were excised by some in order to avoid the impression that Christ had sanctioned adultery. Nikon, a tenth century Greek writer, accused the Armenians of removing the account because “it was harmful for most persons to listen to such things.” However, no Greek Father refers to the pericope until the first part of the 12th century. Nine manuscripts of the ninth century contain these verses and there may be one manuscript including it from the eighth century, but no Father commented upon this passage from the 9th until the 12th century.

In the 16th Century, Western European scholars – both Catholic and Protestant –noticed that a number of early manuscripts of Saint John’s Gospel lacked this passage and that some manuscripts containing the passage marked these verses with critical signs. They also noted that, in the lectionary of the Greek Church, the set gospel reading for Pentecost runs from John 7: 37 to 8: 12, but skips over these 12 verses.

Many scholars continue to defend the Johannine authorship of these verses. However, while almost all modern translations now include the Pericope de Adultera at John 7: 53-8: 11, some place it in brackets, and some add a note about the oldest and most reliable witnesses.

Yet, the pericope de adultera was chosen as the lesson to be read publicly in the Orthodox Church each year on Saint Pelagia’s day, 8 October. And this story contains two of the best known sayings of Jesus: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (AV, verse 7b) and “Go and sin no more” (AV, verse 11). In the NRSV and NIV there are less memorable versions: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (NRSV) or “Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and “Go now and leave your life of sin” (NIV).

The literary influences of this passage reflect how well-loved and well-known it is.

Where would we be if we without being able to draw a line in the sand? Who would I accuse if I had permission to throw the first stone? How reckless might each of us be without the admonition to sin no more? Or how guilty might we feel, constantly, without the assurance that we are no longer condemned?

The setting

The disciples had gone up on their own for the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) in Jerusalem, where they were joined unexpectedly by Jesus half-way through the Feast. Now they have gone home without him, leaving Jesus alone, and on his own he goes to the Mount of Olives.

Once again, he returns to Jerusalem, and begins teaching in the Temple courts once again. There a trap is set for him by an unholy alliance of Scribes and Pharisees in the form of an apparently honest request for help in pursuing justice. However, we can see in verse 6 that the Scribes and the Pharisees are not interested in justice – they are only interested in trapping Jesus.

Adultery was regarded as a capital crime (see Leviticus 20: 10). This may seem horrifying to our modern minds, but remember how the Mosaic Law was tough on crimes against people, relationships, and the family unit, while other contemporary law codes were tough instead on crime against on property. This difference in emphasis (people or things) indicates different value systems.

Now Jesus is caught in a dilemma: if he agrees with the Mosaic Law and calls for the execution of this woman, he could be accused of sedition, for the Romans had taken away the Jews’ right of capital punishment.

On the other hand, if he says she should not be stoned, he faces accusations of false teaching and could be discredited among the people, who would also prefer harsh punishment for proven criminals.

When Jesus bends down and starts to write in the sand, he might be seen as stalling for time. Yet, he has not been caught off guard in the past.

However, Jewish civil law had very strict conditions under which adultery was punishable by execution. It required that those accused of adultery should be caught in the act (Numbers 5: 13). Rabbi Samuel says: “In the case of adulterers, they [the witnesses] must have seen them in the posture of adulterers.” Another Talmudic scholar says: “[It is not just an issue] of their having seen the couple in a ‘compromising situation,’ for example, coming from a room in which they were alone, or even lying together on the same bed. The actual physical movements of the couple must have been capable of no other explanation, and the witnesses must have seen exactly the same acts at exactly the same time, in the presence of each other, so that their depositions would be identical in every respect.”

But the law also demanded that both parties should be brought forward and prosecuted (Deuteronomy 22: 22). Well, it does take two to commit adultery.

If the woman has been caught in adultery, then where is the man? The whole story could have been fabricated. Perhaps the woman has been up so she can be used to discredit Jesus. Did one of them solicit her, and then others burst in on a pre-arranged signal, let the man go and drag the unfortunate woman before Jesus?

If so, then they too are accessories to the crime and guilty of adultery themselves.

What did Jesus write in the sand? According to several later manuscripts, verse 8 includes the words: “he wrote the sins of each of them” (see Jeremiah 17: 13). But most readings leave us not knowing. Yet, whatever he wrote did not set them back in their intentions, for they kept on questioning him.

So, despite the popular dramatised portrayal of this story, what Jesus said to them is more important than what he wrote on the ground (see verse 7b): Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

As the men slowly slip away, the woman is left looking at Jesus, and the crowd is still looking on. She has been publicly humiliated, she has been in danger of losing her life, and now her accusers have faded away while she is left embarrassingly in front of Jesus and in front of everyone else.

The response of Jesus to her is very different to the response she must have expected. She does not deny her sinfulness. She simply admits there is no-on there to condemn her. And neither does Jesus condemn her.

He does not say she has not sinned. He accepts her. He loves her. He simply requests that she should sin no more. She makes no apology, and he expects none. This is not about apologies. This is about divine forgiveness, and she receives it and receives the gift of life.

In a real sense, this woman is each and every one of us. We too receive the unrestrained mercy of Christ.

The woman has sinned, she makes no effort to deny or conceal this, and she stands humbly before Christ. Subsequently he extends to her the divine forgiveness that we are all in need of in our lives.

When we read Gospel stories, we often like to think we would behave like Jesus. We ask the WWJD question: “What Would Jesus Do?” But when I read this story, I often fnd myself identifying both with the woman and with the people. So often I can feel I am being unfairly accused and unfairly judged by others ... but if they really knew what was in my heart at times, what would they think of me? And so often I can rush to judgment about others without realising and accepting my own weaknesses, my innate faults, my own sinfulness.

It is right that we are not too quick to judge and it is certainly right that we do not put God to the test as the Pharisees tried to do to Jesus. But neither is it a matter of condoning wrongful behaviour, or turning a blind eye to sin – especially in our own lives. It is a matter of recognising our sinfulness and placing our humble trust in Christ before whom we must all be judged.

This woman places hersself fully and completely at the mercy of God. The NRSV translation “Sir” in verse 11 may appear like a polie Americanism. But it misses the potential that is in the original Greek of seeing her making a confession in Jesus as “Lord” when she says: “Οὐδείς, κύριε.”

Let us then hide nothing from him but turn towards him with all our hearts for forgiveness and by our example encourage others to do the same.

Some questions for discussion:

How do we decide on which passages or books are part of the Bible?

Could you use this passage in teaching and preaching?

Could you use passages from the Apocryphal books?

Who do you identify with in this story?

When others have offended you, can you draw a line in the sand and put their offences behind you?

How do you respond when other people come to you with gossip and stories about the sins or lifestyle of others?

Are there some people who find forgiveness difficult to receive in the Church?

In many moderrn translations, this passage appears to say nothing about the woman’s faith. Do you think there is a necessary connection between faith and the assurance of God’s forgiveness?

What does this passage say about women’s rights?

What does this passage say to you about our role in advocacy?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 24 March 2010.