Advent Penance Service: The Prodigal Son

The Gospel for the Parish Penance service this evening was the parable of the Prodigal Son, which you can find here.

Does anyone here like surprises?  Usually, this year is primed for surprises, whether they be special Christmas gifts under the tree, a surprise visit from a family member coming into town this Christmas, the surprise of waking up and finding out that the Cardinals signed Albert Pujols overnight…  This season is filled with surprises!  It’s exciting especially to see the surprise on a child’s face when they are opening Christmas gifts, so confident that they’re getting one thing, and then finding something completely different and far better under all that wrapping.  It’s exciting to be surprised.

It might be difficult to imagine this, but think of the surprise that the Prodigal Son received as well.  Let’s walk through the story together.  We hear that he’s asking the Father for his share of the inheritance.  Now remember, his father hadn’t died yet!  Think of what he was saying: Dad, I know you’re not dead yet, but I want my share of that inheritance, and I’m leaving.  He was saying, “I don’t love you anymore, I don’t need you, I don’t care for you.  Just leave me to my own life.”  What a terrible thing to say, and what pain the father must have felt in his heart at this betrayal!  But his father sort of shrugs it off and allows his son to do as he wishes, even if it means going off and squandering the money.  So the son does just that.  But eventually, he realizes what he’s done, what he’s said.  And he decides to turn around and accept the responsibility.  He knows that he deserves nothing – except punishment.  He knows he’s a sinner.  And he expected his father to do what every other father would do here.  He expected to return home and live a life of miserable servitude for the rest of his life.  But at least he’d be alive, right?  He thought he knew what was coming.

But then what he received was completely different.  His father didn’t just sit back while the son crawled to him for forgiveness.  No, even while he was a long way off, he came out to meet him.  But think about that – that must have meant that he had been waiting, watching every day for his son to return, and then, even as old as he is, he comes running out to embrace the son!  He clothes him, exalts him, and then celebrates the rebirth of his son!

Wow!  What an incredible surprise!  I think sometimes we can act like this son – I hope we can act like this son.  We know that each one of us is weak, human, fragile; and we sin.  We demand things a certain way from God, and we say, “Just give me what’s mine, and get out of here.  I don’t need you, God.  I don’t want you.  I’m better off on my own.”  Sin is an ugly, nasty, terrible thing.  And God gives us the freedom to be able to do that.  But at some point, we find ourselves here, sitting in this church.  We begin to look around, and we realize our mistakes, our ingratitude.  We know that we deserve nothing at all except punishment, and so we start to expect that.  The slap on the wrist, the heavy hand, the priest saying to us, “You did what?  I’m so disappointed.”  The shame has taken us over, and so we come to expect these things.

But then the surprise comes.  God, through the grace of this beautiful sacrament of healing, comes racing down from heaven to meet us and lift us back on our feet.  Like that father in the parable, our heavenly Father is watching, anxious and yearning to reach down to us – not to strike us as we’d expect.  Not to condemn us.  But rather, to bring us back!  God wants to bring us back so much that he gives us the gift of this simple sacrament – a dialogue with his priest that results in our being set free.

A good image of this comes to mind for me in Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel.  You probably all know this one.  Adam, God’s creation, is barely lifting his hand, almost as if he’s sapped of life and energy.  But then you look at God the Father, who isn’t reclining back, waiting for Adam to crawl to his heavenly throne.  He’s making every effort, almost as if he’s straining to maintain his balance on that cloud, reaching to touch Adam’s hand and bring him to life.

Tonight, he does the same for us.  So if you have that fear, that nervousness about confession that I think a lot of people have, don’t be afraid.  Be surprised!  Be amazed and awestruck at the great gift of the Father rushing out to meet us, here to put the cloak of his grace around us, and to give us the ring of eternal life.  And then, being brought once more into the fullness of the family of the Church, let us strive to live as new sons and daughters of our one Father in Heaven.