The following homily was given by Bishop Paul S. Loverde on March 18, 2007, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, at St. Thomas More Cathedral in Arlington.
Years ago, this particular Sunday in Lent was called "Laetare Sunday." The word "laetare" in Latin means "be glad" or "rejoice." On this particular Sunday in Lent, there was a brief break in the Lenten season, a moment of refreshment amidst the rigors of the Lenten penance and fasting. The change in the color of vestments, from purple to rose, indicated that this Sunday was somewhat the same yet somewhat different from the other Sundays of Lent.
This invitation to "be glad" or "rejoice" causes us to reflect on the real reason for rejoicing even in Lent. Our true joy is anchored in Christ Our Lord and Savior, because by His Dying and Rising, He has freed us, saved us, redeemed us, from sin and eternal death. As Saint Paul reminds us in today's second reading, we have become new creations in Christ because God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ.
To be reconciled implies that previously we were estranged or separated; to be reconciled implies that we have rejoined the circle, we have come back home. So, what separates us from God? What causes us to be outside the circle, to leave home? Is it not sin? Yes, when we refuse to love God and one another as He commands us to do, when we disobey, preferring our will and not His, when we misuse the good things He has given us, we break away from the family of God, we walk out of the circle, we leave home. Later, when we come to our senses and desire to return, we take part in the process of reconciliation, coming back home.
In today's gospel account, Jesus describes this process of reconciliation so beautifully and so powerfully by telling us the parable of the Prodigal Son, or, as it is also called, the parable of the Forgiving Father. Even more to the point, this parable actually is lived out each time we go to confession, that is, each time we celebrate and receive the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, "the Sacrament of Divine Mercy." In that celebration, in that experience of being reconciled to God and to the Church, we truly rejoice, we truly are glad. Why? Because in the celebration of this sacrament, we arrive enslaved by sin yet leave freed through divine grace, we arrive discouraged yet leave uplifted, we arrive with sorrow and regret yet we leave with joy and new hope. Yes, "going to confession" is truly a "laetare" experience, a time to be glad and to rejoice.
As I said, the parable which Jesus tells us today is actually lived out by us. When we sin, are we not like the younger son in the parable, who left home and squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation? We are given the inheritance of belonging to God's family, to the Church which is the Community of Christ's disciples, and our destiny is to live forever with God once our earthly pilgrimage is ended. But, when we sin, we throw away our inheritance and run risk of losing eternal life.
However, like that younger son, we do come to our senses. We discover that what we thought would bring us happiness does not. We discover the emptiness, the misery, the isolation, the hunger sin causes. We long to go back home, to be forgiven.
The wonder of God's love for each one of us is this: even before we begin to desire to go back home, to turn away from sin and to turn back to God and to the Church, to become reconciled, God is already looking for us to return home; He is already planning our reconciliation. "While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him."
When you and I go before the living symbol of Christ and the Church, who is the ordained priest, we are like that younger son, being embraced by our Father and experiencing mercy, compassion and forgiving love. Yes, we acknowledge our sins honestly and clearly: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son."
But notice that the father in the parable did not let this son finish his prepared speech. He ordered that a feast be prepared — a feast of welcome and rejoicing. Why? "Because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."
In the Sacrament of Penance, we too hear words that welcome us and reconcile us; words that free us and restore us. We were dead through sin; now we are alive again through God's mercy and love. How can we not be glad and rejoice, because God in His mercy wills that we remain His sons and daughters! And we are restored to the Community of the Church, where all our brothers and sisters also rejoice at our return, unlike the older brother in the parable who was unforgiving, who was the total opposite of his father.
Lent is the season for us to return home, to be reconciled with God and with the Church. Lent is the time to acquire a deeper appreciation for the Sacrament of Penance. Lent is the right moment to celebrate and to receive this sacrament and then, after Lent, to continue doing so on a regular basis throughout the rest of the year.
Earlier this week, we received Pope Benedict XVI's Post-Syndodal Apostolic Exhortation entitled Sacramentum Caritatis. In it, in number 20, our Holy Father points to the intrinsic relationship between the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He writes: "The Synod Fathers rightly stated that a love for the Eucharist leads to a growing appreciation of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Given the connection between these sacraments, an authentic catechesis on the meaning of the Eucharist must include the call to pursue the path of penance (cf. 1 Cor 11: 27-2). Furthermore, the relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation reminds us that sin is never a purely individual affair; it always damages the ecclesial communion that we have entered through Baptism. For this reason, [the Fathers of the Church] thus emphasized that the outcome of the process of conversion is also the restoration of full ecclesial communion, expressed in a return to the Eucharist."
This Lent, then, hear again the divine invitation: "on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." Let us say "yes" and let this reconciliation be experienced in the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. That will be our "laetare" experience. There, in that sacrament, we will be glad, we will rejoice. Amen!