Returning home: The joy of God’s forgiveness

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde for the Closing Mass of the 40 Hours Devotion, the Vigil of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

What makes God happy? Of course, God is completely happy as He is, so, from that viewpoint, He does not need anyone or anything to make Him happy. Yet, He freely chose to be made happy by us, the people He has lovingly created and redeemed. So, how do we make God happy? How do we bring joy to His Heart, made tangible and visible by the Sacred Heart of His Son Jesus Christ? How? By coming back home to Him! By turning away from whatever has separated us from Him - our sins, and returning home where He already is looking out on the horizon for us, eagerly awaiting our arrival so He can welcome us back home, embrace us with His mercy and feed us at the Eucharistic Table. God is made happy by forgiving us!

So, we rejoice to gather here this evening in this beautiful basilica, "Mary's House," for the closing Mass of its 40 Hours of Eucharist adoration. It is also a joy to celebrate the closing of "24 Hours for the Lord," an international event initiated by Pope Francis for this Jubilee Year of Mercy. In this season of Lent, when we turn our eyes towards the sorrowful Passion of the Cross, we sometimes need a reminder of the joy in our midst. Today, on this vigil of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we have such a reminder, for this Sunday is set aside as Laetare Sunday. Laetare is the Latin imperative, "Rejoice!" or "Be joyful!"

We also rejoice because, as we heard in the Gospel, our God is exceedingly merciful and rejoices in offering His mercy to his children as they return home. Commenting on the Gospel we just heard, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Pope Francis said, "God is joyful! And what is the joy of God? The joy of God is forgiving … (I)t is the joy of a father welcoming home the son who was lost, who was as though dead and has come back to life, who has come home. Here is the entire Gospel! Here! The whole Gospel, all of Christianity, is here!" (Angelus Address, September 15, 2013).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is probably the most famous parable in the Gospels, and as with anything that becomes too familiar, there is a danger of our becoming numb to its meaning. So it is a blessing that we have this time to ponder it together once again and to reflect on the many beautiful details Jesus presents about the mercy of Our Heavenly Father.

In the parable, the younger son, in his greed, asks his father for his share of the inheritance, in a sense telling him, "I cannot wait for you to die; I want to spend your money now." Once he receives his inheritance, he moves to another country, far away from his father, and there he spends all of his money foolishly. When a famine strikes the land, he is helpless and is forced to tend pigs, the most unclean animal in the Jewish culture, to get by. Bankrupt, starving and dirty, the younger son comes to the realization that even the lowest servant in his father's house is better off than he is, so he decides to return to his father, admit his sins and ask if he could serve his household not as a son, but as a slave.

On his way home, his father sees the son from a long way off, which indicates that the father has been eagerly waiting for his lost son to return. Seeing him, the father runs to his son, embraces him, kisses him and when his son begins his act of contrition - "I have sinned against heaven and against you" - he stops him. The father cannot wait to share his mercy. He does not need to hear any more.

By his choice and by his sin, the son removed himself from his father's house. When we commit serious sin, we do the same, for we separate us from living in a close relationship with Our Father. Yet this parable teaches us that we must never lose hope, no matter how grave we believe our sins to be, for Our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son cannot wait to offer their mercy to us! Like the father in the parable, they watch for us, running out to meet us at our moment of contrition, and embrace us with love. "The joy of God is forgiving!" so we must always come to God in our sins, trusting that He will always welcome us. As Pope Francis likes to remind us, God never tires of forgiving us; it is we who tire of asking for forgiveness. May we never tire of seeking God's mercy.

Returning to the parable, the father throws a great feast because his younger son has returned, but this is not the end of the parable, nor is it the end of the father's mercy, for the father has an older son who refuses to enter the house and celebrate his younger son's return. So the father goes to meet his older son outside of the house - another act of mercy. This older son's sins of judgmental pride are keeping him from sharing his father's joy. Unlike his younger brother, who was contrite and ready to enter the house, the older son is not ready to forgive and thus is not ready to be forgiven. In his mercy, the father pleads with his older son to count the blessings that he has and to find joy, not condemnation, in the return of his brother, who was lost and now is found. This is how the parable ends, with the words of a joyful father who is eager to show mercy and teach mercy to his children.

Each of us has a Heavenly Father who desires to share His home with us, where we will share His joy with the saints and angels for all eternity. His desire leads Him to run and meet us in our sin, in our doubt, in our sorrow or in whatever circumstances are keeping us from Him and His mercy. We find His mercy through the Church in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. During Lent, we are encouraged to seek forgiveness in the confessional, and to that end, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington participate in "The Light is On" initiative, wherein each Wednesday evening of Lent, any Catholic can go into any church in these dioceses to experience the joy of the Father's forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance, thereby bringing joy to God by returning home.

Not only does Our Lord provide us with the sacrament of Confession, but as we end this 40 Hours Devotion, we celebrate the life-giving gift of His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we encounter the Beloved Son of the Heavenly Father Who shows us the mercy and love of the Father. In the Eucharist, we have a foretaste of our heavenly home. At this and every Mass, we come face-to-face with mercy in the flesh, and through the reception of the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, we are strengthened to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and convincing heralds of mercy to everyone whom we encounter.

Yes, we rejoice this day for the gift of the Eucharist. We rejoice because we are drawing close to the sacred mysteries of the Paschal Triduum. We rejoice because like the prodigal son, we have a Heavenly Father whose joy is to forgive! Let us run to Him, trusting in his mercy and love! Let us return home because returning home brings joy to His Heart. Returning home makes God happy!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016