Fourth Sunday of Lent
Luke 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, not pink, vestments. Rose is red and blue — purple — with a tinge of gold, reminding us of the first rays of the sun as they creep across the horizon after a dark night. Pink blends red and white. Gold, the color of daybreak, is essential, reminding us that Christ, the light of the world, is coming.
The Book of Joshua, the first reading, looks far back to the time when God’s people finished the long, threatening trip across the Sinai Peninsula. It was then, as it is now, bleak in sterility and danger.
Along the way, they disowned God, but God still rescued them from starvation, sending manna from the sky. Scientifically speaking, what was manna? No one knows, but it was real. Unexpectedly, it appeared. The people could not have created it. It was God’s gift. With it, the people survived.
St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians furnishes the second reading. In the reading is Paul’s urgent appeal to the Corinthian Christians to be reconciled with God in Christ. Imagine Paul’s frustration as he saw the Corinthians toying with their old pagan ways. Of course, urgency literally flowed in his words. They revealed his belief that nothing else matters but life in union with God. Thus, he implored the people to return to God to be “new creations” in Christ.
For its final reading on this weekend, the Church gives us, from Luke’s Gospel, the reassuring parable of the prodigal son.
Much of the parable is self-evident, even to us in the 21st century. Quite clear is the unqualified, constant love of the wayward son’s father, who is a symbol of God.
The parable best is understood by considering the ancient context. The prodigal son was not the older son, therefore, he was not his father’s heir. The prodigal son had no right to an inheritance, whether he was good or bad. However, neither did he have a right to abandon his father. This especially would have disgusted Jews at the time of Jesus, who prized loyalty to parents.
Most of all, the prodigal son rejected the privilege of being part of the People of God. He repudiated 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, unbelieving mothers.
His sins brought him no reward. He had to serve not humans, not just animals, even, but pigs: filthy, ugly predators, 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, to be with God in and through, Jesus, is near.
Wisely, the Church realizes that all its members, to some degree, at some time, have been prodigal sons, wandering away as the Corinthians wandered.
Its message this weekend, however, is not of denunciation and divine revenge. 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 reassures us. Although we may sin, God never abandons the promise to protect us.
God loves us. He is forever merciful, regardless of how far we stray — if we repent.
In Jesus, the sacrificial victim of Calvary, God awaits us with the Eucharist, manna for our starving souls, for which there is no substitute and without which we starve.
Use Lent. Turn to God.
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