Walk the Road of Penance and Reconciliation Leading Back to the Father.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
15 September 2013
God’s love is no ordinary love, but truly extraordinary, burning, intense and unceasing. It is the love of a compassionate Father; it is the Love that exceeds every human desire.
In this Sunday’s gospel (Lk 15:1-32) we hear a profound message of unrelenting love from our Savior, Jesus Christ. In three parables, Jesus speaks of the love of God for his children and his divine mission as Savior of humankind. We correctly get the sense, in these parables, that God truly thirsts for us all. Also, we begin to see that the love of Jesus is beyond all loves and far exceeds anything we could imagine.
The love of God is certainly not an ordinary love, but a lavish, burning and fiery love of an indescribable intensity. In fact, God’s love is of such power and strength that we cannot possibly fully comprehend it, anymore than a mote of dust that falls upon the surface of the Sun can hope to fathom the full extent of its size and heat.
Nevertheless, when we look upon the cross of our Lord Jesus, letting our hearts and eyes gaze upon his sacrifice of love, we do begin to understand the real depth of his divine and human love for humanity; we begin to grasp the immense magnitude of God’s love.
Since it is Christ crucified who definitively unveils the depth of God’s love and the mystery of humankind, lighting our way as we journey along the path of life toward its end, which is eternal communion with the Father, it is helpful to reflect on the cross in order to understand more about God’s indescribable love. It is in, through and with Christ that we begin to see in a new way and with greater clarity. In Jesus, the eyes of love are opened to the Light of Love. Christ crucified, then, unfolds these parables to their fullest extent.
In the first of these parables, Luke tells us the wonderful story of the lost sheep. Next, we hear of the woman who loses one small coin, and yet tirelessly sets about the task of finding it. Finally, we hear the most famous parable of all time: the Prodigal Son.
Each of these parables convey this wondrous truth about God: He is extravagant in his love and mercy, lavishing it in abundance upon his children.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, as I said, is the most famous parable of all time. The reason for its fame, is that it tells the story of a loving Father who is himself the desire of the human heart. He is a Father who, although he should be offended, refuses to become angry with his children–he does not give up on his son for even a moment. He is the type of Father we all hope for; he is the Father we all dream about; he is the Father we thirst for in the depths of our soul. Every human person unceasingly longs for just such a Father. Humanity itself longs for him; and, in God, we have him!
Because the parable of the Prodigal Son passed from the lips of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who truly knows the Father, we are struck profoundly by its truth. We have here God-made-man explaining who God the Father really is! We suddenly realize that God’s love really and truly is infinitely greater than anything of which we could ever conceive on our own.
God the Father loves you to such an extent that, though there are billions of people on the world, he never takes his eyes off you; nor does he ever stop thinking of you. Should you stray far away, should you offend him by your sin and close your heart to him, he nevertheless welcomes you back with great joy, lavishing you with heavenly gifts the very moment you set about making your return.
Further, God the Father is not merely waiting for those of you who might be distant, but rather he is calling softly and persistently with his divine whisper of love, urging you this moment to rush back into his arms. If you listen in silence, you will hear his voice; if you wait peacefully, you will feel him urging you compassionately back into his loving embrace.
But that is precisely the problem in contemporary society, is it not? That is, there are many people who are not listening and who are not waiting. They have traded silence and the voice of the Father for fleeting, created objects of some small and momentary pleasure. They have not yet noticed the reality of their situation: they have not yet come to realize they are in dire need of God; they have not yet recognized or admitted that their eyes are fixed on the pods on which the swine feed, rather than on the loving Father who is calling them to a new life of warmth, peace, security and love.
In fact, most of us, at some point, have been the Prodigal Son. That is another reason why this parable narrated by St. Luke is so powerful. It reminds us of us. It tells the story of humanity and its struggle for love and happiness. It tells the story of our failings. All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Most of us have recklessly spent our inheritance. The question is, have we noticed?
If we find we have squandered our “inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Lk 15:13), it is time to return to the Father. Now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:2). What is the first step? Just as with the Prodigal Son, it is necessary to come to our senses. We must “get up and go to” the Father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers” (Lk 15:18-19).
Blessed John Paul II, soon to be canonized a saint, had this to say about returning to the Father:
To acknowledge one’s sin, indeed — penetrating still more deeply into the consideration of one’s own personhood—to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. . . . In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes, therefore, doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance — which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father. (Reconciliation and Penance, 13)
A new attitude is key. It is an attitude of sincere humility before God, which is the recognition of who we really are before the Father. It is an attitude through which we come face-to-face with the depth of our desperate need and total dependence on God. Our hearts thirst for forgiveness and mercy, and we will not be whole or at rest until we set out on the road back to the Father. Humility, then, is a virtue leading to human fulfillment. It was humility that opened the Prodigal Son’s eyes.
To walk the road back to the Father is to do what the Prodigal Son did: he confessed his sins. For the Christian, the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the road leading back to the Father: “The first conviction is that for a Christian the sacrament of penance is the primary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sin committed after baptism,” wrote John Paul II.
Certainly the Savior and his salvific action are not so bound to a sacramental sign as to be unable in any period or area of the history of salvation to work outside and above the sacraments. But in the school of faith we learn that the same Savior desired and provided that the simple and precious sacraments of faith would ordinarily be the effective means through which his redemptive power passes and operates. It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness. (RAP 31)
Through the sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ and given power by the mystery of his life, the Father embraces us and says, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Lk 15:22-24).
“Then the celebration began.”
Please consider helping to maintain this site with a donation. Even small tips help!
Photo Credit: Mika Matin
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.