Years past, today was known as Laetare Sunday, from the first Latin word of the entrance song, “Rejoice O Jerusalem and all you that love her!” [Isaiah 66:10-11]. It marks the half-way point in our Lentin pilgrimage, the counterpart of “Gaudete” Sunday in Advent, which means the same thing. In both seasons, in anticipation of the joy to come, the violet hues of penitence have been lightened to rose.
However there will be little cause for joy in much of the world, especially in Ukraine, where the people are suffering a merciless and terrible invasion by a neighboring country despite its long Christian heritage. But there is also cause for hope that one day, soon hopefully, an end to hostilities will give way to peace and reconciliation. That’s a tall order.
But it was a tall order in South Africa, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland, where Commissions of Truth and Reconciliation brought an end to deadly conflict and began the process of building peace. It is still a possibility that peace and reconciliation will bring an end to conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, North and South Koreans, perhaps even Democrats and Republicans.
Closer to home, there is often the need for reconciliation between parents and children, sisters and brothers, and wives and husbands. Quarreling and enmity seem almost pandemic in human affairs. Even Jesus recognized this, not least in regard to the gospel itself:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household” [Matt 10:34-36].
But that is more rather than less cause to work for forgiveness and reconciliation. Surely some the saddest words in any language are “I will never forgive…”
Appropriately for readings this Sunday that focus on the theme of reconciliation, two tell us about feasts of joy. The reading from the Book of Joshua describes the first meal the Israelites’ enjoyed after they entered Canaan. They had come to the land God had promised Abraham and they had only glimpsed from a distance following their escape from Egypt and years of wandering in the desert. And it is their rather meager feast that links the first reading with the Gospel, a return celebrated by feasting after the fracture and healing of a family.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son has found many applications over the centuries. It was transformed into a great ballet by George Balanchine with an unforgettable score by Sergei Prokofiev, a mini-opera by Benjamin Britten, and even a not-so-great and largely forgotten epic film in which the phrase about “loose women” was elaborated into the main plot line. (Remember Lana Turner?)
Much has been made about the second part of the story, which is sometimes left out of the retelling or, alternatively, celebrated as the real heart of the parable. Whatever one thinks, the parable is about truth and reconciliation – the truth about oneself and the need for (and possibility of) reconciliation. The story has two examples, the forgiveness and reconciliation shown by the father, and the unresolved resistance of the elder brother. Sometimes achieving reconciliation in families is the toughest slog of all.
But Jesus is uncompromising about the need for both forgiveness and reconciliation. One of his most powerful teachings is not from the gospel of Luke, however, but from Matthew. The message is the same:
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” [Matt 5:23-24].
Later in Luke’s gospel, we hear “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” [Luke 17:3-4]. Even if there is no expression of regret and a change of heart, the willingness to forgive and be reconciled must run ahead or, like the father in the parable, patiently, longingly searching. Sometimes it succeeds. Sometimes it doesn’t.
In the second reading for today, St. Paul summarizes the command of Jesus in just a few words. But throughout his works Paul, who suffered so much from factions and disunity in the infant Church, continually urges reconciliation [Rom 5:11, 11:15; 2 Cor. 5: 18-20; Eph 2:16; Col. 1:20-21]. For him, it is a ministry, a “diakonia,” in itself. But, he insists, true reconciliation is not achieved by human effort alone, but by the grace of God. We need more than a little help here. And like forgiveness, we first receive reconciliation in order to share it with others [Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 7:11]. Moreover, as we hear today, it is through the ministry of reconciliation that we become “ambassadors” for Christ. Significantly, the Greek word Paul uses here [presbeuo] means “elder” or in the later, Christian sense, “priest.”
So even in the midst of war and violence, we have cause to rejoice today, if only because there is aways the possibility of achieving reconciliation and the necessity of advocating it. Nothing is impossible with the grace of God. Please pray for peace in Ukraine.