The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on March 18 at St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria, for the Arlington Diocesan Council of Catholic Women.
What is your favorite image of God? Do you even have one? Well, whatever is the way you and I picture God, I invite us all this morning to compare our image with the one that Jesus gives us. We discover this image in today's Gospel account: "the father ran out to meet his returning son, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him." Jesus' image of God is that of a "father embracing." What a powerful image! Without a word, it speaks volumes. After all, an embrace is the most tender, loving, deeply human thing we can do with our hands and arms. An embrace communicates total acceptance and identification between human beings, who are willing to let their lives be intertwined. Yes, an embrace is such a powerful sign or image and it is precisely this image which is Jesus' image of God, His Father.
The question is: this image of God as the One who embraces us — is this your image of God? Is it mine? Imagine the difference, in your life and in mine, if it were!
For instance, we would not have to pretend anymore about what we really are; we could let go of our illusions about ourselves, illusions which weigh us down and destroy us. We could look at ourselves honestly and admit our sinfulness and not be afraid, because the One we call God is eagerly waiting for us to come home, to return to Him. He is eagerly waiting to embrace us. So, what awaits us is, not condemnation, but reconciliation and celebration.
In this regard, St. Claude la ColumbiÃ¨re reflects on the infinite mercy of God and His forgiveness of our sins. Once, St. Claude wrote to a dying woman, whose consciousness of guilt made her fear God. "Do you know what would stir up my confidence if I were as near to giving an account to God as you are? It would be the number and the seriousness of my sins.
Here is a confidence really worthy of God. Far from allowing us to be depressed at the sight of our faults, it strengthens us in the idea of the infinite goodness of our Creator. Confidence inspired by purity of life does not give very much glory to God. Is this all that God's mercy can achieve — saving a soul that has never offended him? For sure the confidence of a notorious sinner honors God most of all. For he is so convinced of God's infinite mercy that all his sins seem no more than an atom in its presence."
In a real sense, St. Claude was echoing what the Lord was saying to us in today's first reading: "Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin; who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt? You will cast in the depths of the sea all our sins." Yes, this is the God Who embraces us!
With this image of God as One Who embraces us, we would understand so much better that the sacraments are not merely things we receive but the visible signs of being embraced by God Who so loves us and Who yearns to reconcile us to Him and to each other. And with this kind of understanding, we would come to the Eucharist and to Penance eagerly! After all, who would not want to be embraced and each sacrament is intended to be just that: a divine embrace within the community called Church.
With this image of God as One Who embraces us, we would realize that the Christian way of life is not some kind of obstacle course we run in order to prove we are worthy, but rather that the Christian way of life is a response in love to One Who already loves us and embraces us in that love.
Lent is the season for becoming more aware of Who God is and of who we are in relation to Him. Lent is the season for changing our attitudes, for turning around, for growing in our understanding of what it means to be Christ's follower all year long, all life long. What is key in all of this is our image of God. No matter how we may have pictured God up to now, we can adopt a new way of picturing God, a new image, the very one Jesus gives: God is the One Who embraces us closely, warmly, because He loves us.
At this early point in Lent, we ask God: How much do You love us? And pointing to Jesus His crucified Son, He replies: Jesus perfectly reflects Me. Jesus is the sign of My love: How much do I love you? This much!
My brothers and sisters, that is the embrace of God for you and for me!