Eighteenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)
Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Today is Laetare Sunday. Just as the midpoint of Advent was a time to rejoice in anticipation of Christmas, so too at the midpoint of Lent do we become glad (Latin laetare) as we anticipate the Easter celebration. And we do this in much the same way as we rejoiced in Advent: by singing and sharing, by putting ourselves at each other’s service, and by turning ever more closely toward the face of our merciful Father.
The First Reading shows the fruits of this gladness: “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” In speaking these words to Israel at Gilgal, God has confirmed the realization of the promise He made when He first began to lead them out of slavery, over 40 years ago at this point. The old, sinful generation is dead and gone. The new generation has entered into the Promised Land. They observe the Passover memorial feast in security and using the resources they themselves have gathered and raised. Even the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, now ceases to fall for them, because they can now do for themselves. Last week we saw what happens when God’s children do not turn to Him in repentance. But this week we see the other side of it. God has made good on His end of the deal; now it is up to the Israelites to maintain their end, and they begin with the memorial feast of their deliverance. (May our own Paschal feast in three weeks’ time be just as much a cause of both joy and worship!)
Whenever Israel turns back to God, God deals with Israel just as the father dealt with his two sons in the famous parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading. While most of us tend to focus on the character and behavior of the Prodigal Son himself when we hear this story – and that’s a good thing, for his journey is very instructive for our own – the story is also instructive in another way, one that helps us to discern the character and behavior of God the Father. Look at the father’s actions in the parable: he gives his son the inheritance he asks for, even though we can assume he knows what will likely come of it; he runs out to meet his son when he sees him coming back towards home; he overlooks his son’s failings and proclaims a great feast to celebrate that his son has come home. This father removes the reproach from his repentant son just as God removes the reproach from repentant Israel. And in the midst of all this, he does not deny his other, ever-obedient son anything that is his. He doesn’t undervalue the love or obedience of the “good son” or take it for granted in any way, nor does he overvalue the resolve of the prodigal son who returns. Rather, because one son loves and obeys so well can the father rejoice so greatly in the errant son who comes back home. And if the sons had been reversed, the story would have been the same.
Focusing on God’s fatherly love can help us better understand how to be “merciful like the Father” in our own daily encounters with prodigality. This “no partiality” rule that I’ve mentioned for several weeks now, this evenhandedness we are called to exhibit in all our affairs, is what Saint Paul, in our Second Reading, calls “the ministry of reconciliation” (Latin reconciliare, to recover, restore, reunite). “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ,” he writes to Corinth, “not counting their trespasses against them.” In ancient times God gave His people the Law, so that they would have an explicit means by which to order their lives toward Him and draw in the other nations by that way of life. In our time, the Redemption that is the fulfillment of the Incarnation has made it easier, by incalculable orders of magnitude, for us to turn toward God. And when we do that, He becomes that Father Who meets His returning child halfway, Who throws a feast to celebrate that His child “was dead, and has come to life again.”
That reconciliation in turn enables us to share that festal joy and that healing message with others, enables us to become “ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” We saw these same words at the very beginning of Lent as we received the badge of ambassadorship of our foreheads, and we see them again now at this midpoint to remind us that what we represent – Who we represent – is joy and gladness itself. In the Redemption, God has removed the reproach not just from one nation but from the whole world; He became our sin so we could become His righteousness.
The day of the Lord approaches. Rejoice, be glad and “be reconciled to God!”