4th Sunday of Lent
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
This weekend the Church observes Laetare Sunday, the name being derived from the first word, in Latin, of the Entrance Antiphon. This word is “laetare,” or “rejoice.” The Church rejoices that salvation, finalized in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, is near.
Priests may wear rose vestments. Rose is violet with a tinge of gold, reminding us of the first rays of the sun as they creep across the horizon after a dark night. Christ, the light of the world, is coming.
The Book of Joshua, the first reading, looks far back into the history of God’s people, to the time when they had finished the long and threatening trip across the Sinai Peninsula. Remember, along the way, they disowned God.
Sinai was then, as it is now, bleak in sterility and lifelessness.
Into this situation came God with the gift of manna from the sky. Scientifically speaking, what was manna? No one now can say, but it was real. Unexpectedly, it appeared. The people could not have created it. It was God’s gift. Without the manna, the people would have starved.
St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians furnishes the second reading. Midway in the reading is Paul’s urgent appeal to the Corinthian Christians to be reconciled with God in Christ. It is not difficult to imagine Paul’s frustration as he saw the Corinthians toying with their old pagan ways. They were forsaking true life. Urgency literally flowed in his words.
It underscored his insistence that nothing else matters but life truly with God, thus so powerfully, he implored the people to return to God.
Live as “new creations” in Christ.
For its final reading on this weekend, the Church gives us, from Luke’s Gospel, the beautifully reassuring parable of the Prodigal.
Much of the parable is self-evident, even to us in the 21st century. Certainly quite clear is the unqualified, constant love of the father, who is a symbol of God.
Some powerful messages, however, may be lost until we consider the ancient context. For example, the Prodigal was not the older son; therefore, he was not his father’s heir. The Prodigal had no right to an inheritance, whether he was good or bad. Then, the Prodigal deserted his father. This especially would have disgusted Jews at the time of Jesus, who prized loyalty to parents.
Next, the Prodigal rejected the privilege given him of being part of the people of God. He abandoned the primary obligation of this status, to bear witness to God. Finally, he consorted with prostitutes, scorning the sanctity of marriage, so precious to Jews, and risked defiling the pure stock of God’s people by begetting children who would be reared by pagan and unbelieving mothers.
His sins brought him no reward. He had to wait not just on animals, rather than on humans, but on pigs, the lowest of the low, in Jewish eyes.
Nevertheless, the father forgave all and lavishly gave him an undeserved inheritance.
The Church is joyful. Salvation is near. It calls us to salvation, to be with God in, and through, Jesus.
Wisely, the Church realizes that all its members, to some degree, at some time, have been Prodigals, wandering away as the Corinthians wandered.
Its message this weekend, however, is not of denunciation. Instead, in the reading from Joshua, precisely with its reference to the manna, and in the Gospel, with its thrilling story of the forgiving father, the Church calls us to God. God loves us. He is forever merciful, regardless of how far we have strayed.
In Jesus, the sacrificial victim of Calvary, God awaits us with the Eucharist, food for our starving souls, for which we can find no equal.
Lent is the time to turn back to God.
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