With two world wars and numerous other violent conflicts, the twentieth century was the bloodiest in all human history. So it is no surprise that it was also the bloodiest century for the Church. In fact, more people were put to death because of their faith in the last century than in all the previous centuries of Christianity combined.
One of those martyrs of the twentieth century was Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
He was born in Poland in 1894 and ordained a priest in 1918. After several missionary trips to Japan, he returned to his native Poland at the time of the German invasion and occupation. He worked tirelessly to give shelter to refugees and to help Jews escape the Nazi persecution. However, he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz, in 1941.
While there, a prisoner had escaped from the camp. The guards rounded up ten men and sentenced them to be starved to death in punishment for the successful escape. However, Father Kolbe, knowing that one of the men had a family, offered to take his place. The guards agreed, and he was sent into the cell with the other men. All the while, he prayed and sang songs to encourage the men to stay strong. He and three other men were able to hold out for three weeks. However, the guards, unwilling to wait any longer for him to die, gave Father Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He died in August of 1941 in the place of another man.
When he was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church, the man whose life he saved was at the Mass. Pope John Paul II said of Saint Maximilian Kolbe in his sermon, "By laying down his life for a brother, He made himself like Christ."
What Saint Maximilian Kolbe did by taking the place of a man condemned to die is exactly what Jesus has done for each one of us. Because each of us has sinned and offended God, we deserve death and eternal punishment. However, because of his great love for us, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place. Jesus was innocent, yet he stepped forward to suffer a humiliating death so that the punishment for sin would fall on him and not on us. Because Jesus has died for us, we can be assured that we will find mercy and forgiveness from God despite the sins we have committed.
The fullness of the love and mercy which Jesus came to bring is on display in today's gospel reading. A woman who had been caught in adultery is dragged before Jesus. The penalty for her sin is that she be stoned to death. We can only imagine the shame and fear she felt. However, while the crowd stands in judgement over her, Jesus takes another posture. He stoops down. He brings himself down to her level. He refuses to stand in judgement of her. It was not to condemn sinners that Jesus came, but to bring them the Father's love and mercy. And so he scatters the crowd with his famous words, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."
It is interesting that the gospel begins by telling us that Jesus had just spent the night praying on the Mount of Olives. If the name sounds familiar, it is because it is the same place where Jesus will experience his agony in the garden. As Jesus sees the woman dragged to him, he probably cannot help but think that soon this same crowd would be dragging him to judgment before Pontius Pilate. He probably cannot help but think that soon he will be made to stand beaten and humiliated before this same crowd as they shout out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Jesus knows all too well how bloodthirsty a crowd can be. He refuses to condemn the adulterous woman, no matter how grave her sin. Instead, he offers to die in her place by accepting the tortures of the cross. She can walk away free, because he has taken upon himself the punishment for her sin.
We can very often feel shame and guilt like the adulterous woman. However, the crowd that condemns us is not always other people who have dragged us out and pointed fingers at us. Rather, the crowd is most often voices within us that criticize and accuse us. They are messages we have internalized over the years from parents, teachers and our peers. Those voices tell us that we are not good enough, that we can never be truly holy because of the sins of our past. They tell us that we do not deserve to be forgiven and do not deserve to be loved. They tell us that we are so broken that not even God can fix us. Those voices try to isolate us from God and convince us that we can never have the joy, peace and freedom he promises to those who love him.
When the voices of the crowd and the stones of their condemnation are bearing down on us, we need to fly to Jesus. He alone can dispel all those negative messages and replace them with the good news of God's love and forgiveness. When we have sinned, it is not the time for us to avoid Jesus but to run to him and beg for his mercy. We can count on him to take our shame away and give us his peace, to take away our guilt and replace it with his joy, and to take away our despair and give us the hope that can only be found in him. We need not fear because he has taken on himself the punishment which we deserve. The one who gave his life to save us will spare nothing in order to restore our friendship with him. We can count on him to treat us with kindness and mercy no matter how shameful our sins may be.