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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Laetare Sunday--A Celebration of Mercy

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son
    We are arriving at the middle of Lent and the Sunday that the Church calls "Laetare" or rejoicing Sunday.  We are reminded as we do penance that the purpose of the penance is to be ready to not only celebrate the great feast of the Resurrection, but to be embraced by the Risen One.

   This year's readings on Sundays are from cycle C which features the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel text is the well-known, but not always well understood, Parable of the Prodigal Son, a story that Pope Benedict XVI, in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series, calls the parable of the Good Father. There is good reason for this because the two sons in the story are very typical.  It is the Father (God the Father) who stands out.

   When the younger Son begins to return we are told that the Father "ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." (Lk 15:20).  We have heard this story so often that we take that action for granted, but the first hearers of this parable at the time of Jesus would have been astounded, shocked or even scandalized.  A father at that time would have been expected to wait at home and have the son come begging to him.  This son had squandered his inheritance and was working with swine.  Remember, this is a Jewish family. Working with swine made him unclean.  The son thinks that he can no longer be a son. just a hired worker.  The father then astounds us more by putting a fine robe on him, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. (Lk 15:22). These gestures tell us that the boy is no hired worker, but a son again.  Wow.

    Over the years both within the confines of the confessional and outside of it I have encountered people who thought that their sin had permanently cut them off from God.  They make statements like, "I'm hopeless father, you don't want the likes of me."  I always tell them that not only I, but most importantly our God, wants them back.  In fact like this son, even when we begin to turn back to God, God is already running out to meet us.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation is where we get the  robe, the ring and the sandals. 

   Unfortunately too many of us are like the older son, the prodigal who stayed at home, whose obedience is resentful and who is full of self-righteousness. There are too many people today who are focused on who should be thrown out of the Church than on how to draw people closer to Christ.

  So, let us rejoice this Sunday as we priests appear decked out in rose-colored vestments rather than dark purple one. Let us seek and celebrate the wonderful, astounding mercy of our God, and let us rejoice when someone returns to our God.  Remember, they killed a fattened calf for the occasion (Lk 15:23)  Animals were not killed just for one family in those days with no refrigeration.  When an animal was slaughtered it was so that the whole community could rejoice together. What a wonderful message to have before us in this week when the cardinals will most likely elect our next Pope.

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