Sunday Reflection - Fourth Sunday of Lent
Posted: Sat, 26 Mar 2022 15:21
Today our gospel is perhaps the most popular and well-loved parables of Jesus: the story of the 'Prodigal Son'--or even the tale of the 'Loving Father.' In this great parable of reconciliation, the Prodigal Son (see: Lk 15:11-32), we see the loving father embrace and welcome home a son who has betrayed his trust and spent all his inheritance. The return of this wastrel is celebrated by a party, as this very public sinner is invited to the table, as the father commands, 'Hurry!' he said. 'Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then go and get the prize calf and kill it and let us celebrate with a feast!'
The great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen was so moved by Rembrandt's world famous 'Return of the Prodigal' that he went to St Petersburg (then Stalingrad) to see it up close and personal at the Hermitage Museum. The irony was not lost on him: he had to go to the heart of Soviet Communism to reflect on a central Christian image that spoke to him, as he tried to come to terms with his own issues and become painfully aware that he was loved unconditionally by an accepting God. Sitting and studying this image he saw a poor wretch totally embraced in the care of a loving parent. The image of the younger son embraced in a grasp of welcome is bathed in light, while others, like the older son, remain in the darkened background, all too ready to condemn. Just like the women of Matthew's gospel who do not seem to count, a female, most likely the mother of the family, can just be made out in the darkness. In the gloom of his representation, Rembrandt rightly places his focus on the central act of forgiveness. It is in this spirit of reconciliation that 'the feasting began' When the boy is broken and broken in the 'country far away', he realises the overwhelming generosity of his father; generosity and mercy, for Jesus, are intertwined. The painful contrast between the selfish foreign land and the generous land of the father is described so strongly in the parable: Jesus wants to paint a picture of just how much God the Father has to give, so we never doubt how much mercy he has for us--God's mercy can never take away his power. Mercy and concern for others can never be a sign of weakness, but the narcissist can never see that. The older brother cannot comprehend that mercy freely given.
It is unfortunate that the older brother was not informed of the return of the prodigal for he 'was out in the field; on his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing.' It is the servant, not his father, who tells him the news; we are told that he is 'so angry that he would not go into the house; so, his father came out and begged him to come in.' The narrative moves from the younger son as the older one lists all his own achievements, faithfulness, and piety. He condemns this mercy and generosity as he complains: 'what have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! Did he ever ask for it? Was he living a life of passive aggression, as he played the part of the dutiful son? He is certainly playing the victim card that is all too easily shown when things do not go the way we want. His younger brother instinctively reaches out for the generosity of the father; the father proclaims to all of us that, just like the imperfect older son, 'you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours; we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.' We never find out what happened, as the parable ends on this note of acceptance of the one who has been lost in the context of feasting and celebration. I think it would be wonderful if we offered refreshments every time, we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation in these days: we need to celebrate yet another chance being given to us by God. Nouwen's reflection and hours spent in front of this iconic painting led to his masterpiece, 'Return of the Prodigal Son'. In it, he offers a meditation on the painting and points out that there is both a bit of the older and younger son in each of us. I tend to use it in my retreat work, especially when considering the gift of reconciliation; you might find it useful to spend some time reflecting on the painting yourself—what do you see? Nouwen reflects:
Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt's painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.
It is good to realise, in this context of our need for forgiveness, that Pope Francis constantly reminds us that the Eucharist is not some sort of merit badge for the worthy. As a Church, we have moved from the Jansenists idea that one could only receive communion if one had been to confession just before. I still remember long queues outside the confessional on a Saturday, as we made our weekly penance so that we were in a state of grace before Sunday Mass. In 'The Joy of the Gospel' the Holy Father makes it clear that all of us, no matter what our state, need the Eucharist—it is the food for our journey of life; he is uncompromising in his plea for an open, hospitable community of faith:
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself "the door": baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.
Pastors need to take these words to heart and not act as judge and jury as people approach the Sacraments. I remember well being told by fellow priests at a deanery meeting that I had 'lowered the bar.' My crime? I simply discovered that we had a cohort of children in the parish preparing for First Holy Communion whose fathers were spending time 'at her majesty's pleasure' in prison. The only family visiting day was on a Sunday; the rule for admittance into the First Communion Programme was regular attendance at Sunday Mass—some parishes even opted to have something akin to a 'Costa Coffee' loyalty card that had to be signed by the priest every week. In discussion with the parish catechists, I realised that we could not put these children into such a position: by coming to Sunday Mass, they would be unable to have their weekly, and needed, encounter with their dads. We offered a mass on a Wednesday, straight after school finished using the readings offered for the following Sunday. One would think it was a creative solution to a difficult pastoral problem; it was a genuine attempt to answer a pressing question; however, some of my colleagues saw it a way of making things too easy, as if our lived faith were something akin to an obstacle course, with hoops and hurdles to go through.
One wonders what sort of Church we really want. Do we fully share the urgent compassion of Pope Francis in his plea to the clergy of the world 'smell like the sheep'?
Evangelisers thus take on the 'smell of the sheep' and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.
We are invited to fully share the lives of those we share: one good thing about the global pandemic, that we knew as Covid-19, is that it forced us all to calm down and take life at a slower pace. Many of us involved in busy pastoral ministry were able to stop the plate spinning as we tried to multitask, usually, in my case, very badly. I offer a few reflections, based on my own experience of time spent in lockdown, for all of us caught up in busy ministry—that ministry can be with your family, school, care home, hospital, SVP group of parish family. For me, I came to appreciate the wisdom of Fr Gerard, director of the St Luke's Institute in Manchester when he reminds us that 'none of us are the Messiah—we simply work for him':
· Check your pace of life. If your life is going at a crazy rate, slow down and match the pace of someone who travels life more slowly: while this person can act as a needed mentor and friend, you can come to appreciate life in the slow lane.
· Listen a little more deeply. One of the good things, for me, of having to mask-up during the pandemic was that it forced me to look into the EYES of others that I met. As we look into another's eyes, we can see more than just the words that they are trying to speak. It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul; take time to 'listen' fully, as sometimes we hear far more from what a person does not actually say.
· Surrender the need for perfection in order to focus on the people and values that really matter. The pandemic forced us to realise that we can change urgent deadlines—life can be lived for the good of others.
· Walk to your neighbourhood rather than drive. As a former parish priest of two adjoining inner-city parish families, I was grateful for the walk between Churches, Schools, and home visitations: I always met someone for a chat, and I loved 'school gate' ministry when you could meet parents and families as children were dropped off for the school day. I often felt I did my best pastoral work over the frozen peas in Aldi than in the comfort of the presbytery or parish office. It is in these informal and chance meetings, that we meet the community where they happen to be living a reality that we must not isolate ourselves from
· As you make important decisions in life, review them in terms of the possible impact on your relationships and your community, rather than financial gain and professional status. Pope Francis constantly reminds his clergy that they must not fall into the trap of 'clericalism' thinking that their roman collar or title allows them to feel superior or more important:
Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.
We all like to be respected and share the love of others but when this becomes a perversion of power, then all will suffer. However, this sin is not reserved only to clergy as we are all too aware of those in our families, schools and parishes who share that narcissism and feel that they, too, do not need to listen or learn.
· Expand your circle of 'advisors'. As an educationalist, I have been delighted to see the rise of school councils and using students on interview panels for key roles in schools such as Year Heads, Chaplains, Pastoral Leaders and, most importantly, Head Teachers. We need advice from all those who serve our community, but there is a danger that we only consult the 'experts' I strongly advise that we search out the opinion of the youngest or the 'least' in your midst. I have concluded, after over forty years of pastoral ministry, that children and the so-called 'least' need to be on our parish councils and play an active part in upcoming synods: they have something very valuable to share with us.
· The gift of PRESENCE—Don Bosco reminded the Church of the importance of just being available. As a student in Salesian schools, I was always struck by the way that the local SDB community were always available in our free time. They offered a friendly, non-threatening presence in the yard or in lunchtime clubs. I have learnt that these playground conversations about seemingly unimportant things, can lead to something more profound and deep. By just being around and available, then you can be there when more serious issues need to be explored--people, of whatever age, need to feel that they can trust you in ministry.
· Review the way you communicate. I have heard far too many tales of people being destroyed by being spoken down to—they are not 'snowflakes', as the modern slang speaks of those who cannot seem to face any criticism. We all have feelings, some are more sensitive than others, but we do not have the right to hurt anyone verbally, in writing, or in our body language.
Today's wonderful gospel is a call we can all share, reflect and apply to our busy lives. We will be reminded, once again, how much we are appreciated by God. If God can accept me, with all my faults, surely I can reach out to others this week too?