Another reading of the mass today, from Philippians describes this humiliating and exalted state of love: ‘I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts’. It is devastatingly wonderful to discover that the centre of your world is no longer in yourself. At times you may scramble back to the familiar ledge of self-centredness but then you roll off again into the free fall of love. In many cases this other-centredness, and the ecstasy it brings, is not the real thing. It fades. We can fall out of love and find a stronger love. This is the point we first meet Shakespeare’s Romeo. Eventually, if we are lucky, we fall into love not with any delight that love will give us but with love itself.
We will recognise this moment because love will seem to turn away from us, giving us space. As Jesus, when challenged by the small-minded hostility of his questioners, ignores their trap, looks away and bends down to write on the ground with his finger. Their question falls in the space between them. Should they keep the Law and stone her – – his diluted message of mercy will be exposed as a sham. Or should he pardon her and exclude himself from his tradition – a cold exile. He not only writes but re-writes the question.
At a press conference Pope Francis was asked by journalists, looking not for a teacher but a headline, about gay priests. He gave them one: ‘who am I to judge?’ This delighted liberals and outraged conservatives – perhaps both for the wrong reasons. Jesus too declined the role of judge they wanted to thrust on him. Judges are necessary evils in all human society. They seem all-powerful but are actually confined to the narrow precincts of past precedent and present hair-splitting. Jesus ‘came not to judge but heal’.
What did he write on the ground? Why, when challenged, did the Buddha touch the ground and say that the earth was the witness to the authority of his enlightenment? Jesus’ response shows that love claims nothing except the earthly right to be merciful, to heal and to set free. Who, in the end, can resist falling in love with that?