Imagination or Intimacy?

We live in an age of online dating. Having done most of my own courting before the French Revolution — I gave it up when pantaloons went out of style. Why pursue romance without panache? — I’m reluctant to opine on the surety of this new approach, but I would note one novelty of web romance, as it stands in sharp contrast to the gospel.

In online dating, one first assembles the list of qualities sought in a mate, and then one searches to find the person who best matches that mustering. The Gospel, in contrast, is quite old-fashioned. The entrance of the Beloved is unexpected, and it utterly reorders life. Whatever the qualities one previously might have thought ideal in a lover, they’re completely redrawn on the basis of the person standing before one. Imagination gives way to intimacy.

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The gospel story of the adulterous woman — "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery" (Jn 8:4) — immediately begs the question, how do you catch only one person "in the very act of committing adultery?" Clearly, even if the Mosaic law is being honored, justice is not being served.

The scribes and the Pharisees who drag this woman before Jesus know the law of God. No doubt, like religious people today, especially those who make the faith their livelihood, they would do better than anyone else in talking about God. But this woman, when she could least expect it, is invited to converse with God, to enter into a new relationship, a new intimacy, with God in the person of Christ.

So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She replied, ‘No one, sir.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more’ (Jn 8: 10-11).

To understand the deep import of Saint John’s scene, it helps to know that this story is one of four in this gospel — meant to be teased out in tandem — when Christ addresses someone as "woman." It sounds abrupt to our ears, but the appellative is essentially one of equality. Not daughter or child, but woman.

At the Wedding of Cana, Christ asks his mother, "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come" (Jn 2:4); at the well of the Samaritans, he assures a woman, the one with many husbands, "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" (Jn 4:21); and, outside the tomb, he asks the Magdalene, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" (Jn 20:15).

In each instance, a woman is called to move from one sort of relationship to another. Christ appears as the Beloved, the one who asks each of these women to accept him, either for the first time or in a radically altered way. In all events — and this is the Gospel imperative — the request is as all-embracing as it is abrupt.

As the Fourth Gospel opens, the Mother is asked to become the disciple, a call, which Mary answers flawlessly when she tells the others, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5). At the well, a Samaritan woman is asked to embrace the very hope of Israel in the person of Jesus. And, at gospel’s end, the Magdalene is asked to accept the reality of her resurrected Lord, to exchange the manner she has loved him for the way she must love him hence. In each case, the women open themselves to this unexpected love, one that literally redraws their lives. "See, 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" (Is 43:19).

Lest one think that I am reducing the Gospel to a romance novel, remember that Saint Paul records the same reordering love, "I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him" (Phil 3:8).

Like the women of Saint John’s Gospel, like Saint Paul, we’re asked to surrender our sterile imaginary worlds for real love, the one that stands before us in Christ.

Isaiah 43: 16-21 Philippians 3: 8-14 John 8: 1-11

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