THOUGHTS GLEANED FROM THE END OF LENT
AND THE BEGINNING OF NEW LIFE
Augustine thought of the time before Easter as symbolic of “this
present life,” and the time after Easter as symbolic of eternal
life to come – much the way the Bible often speaks to us symbolically
of Babylon and Jerusalem. [Prosper Guéranger
speaks of this in his classic The Liturgical Year, quoted
in A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days (Liturgical Training
Publications, 1990), vol. 2, p. 43.]
There is a sadness in Lent, a deep, violet, introspective sadness.
In Roman Catholic worship we can hear echoes of that muted sorrow
in our silencing of the Gloria at Mass and our laying aside the
joyous and victorious acclamation Alleluia, till those songs break
forth again in the pre-dawn growing light of Easter.
Lent within Us
In Lent we also lay aside some of our normal, earthly consolations.
As kids we talked about “giving up” things for Lent,
maybe movies, for example, or ice cream. There is a kind of comforting
distraction in movies and ice cream. In Lent we pledge to be a little
less distracted from what goes on inside us. We pay attention to
important things that take place within us – in the arena
of virtue and sin. It is easy to be a little sad when we attend
to our inner ideals and see how we don’t always live up to
God’s grace is with us always, even in the darkest moments
of “this present life” – and that turns our otherwise
sad Lent into a “joyful season” (as the first Lenten
Preface says in the Roman Missal). On Lent’s Fourth Sunday,
two weeks ago, we celebrated that joy: Laetare, exhorted
the entrance antiphon: “Rejoice.”
Roses bloom at that time of spring along the Mediterranean shores;
snows melt a bit in more northern climes. Even nature begins to
On that Sunday we began Gospel readings of God’s mercy and
forgiveness. These past two Sundays two different but complementary
stories have given us an intimate look into the heart of God.
Then the monumental story of Christ’s Passion and death
on Palm Sunday will take our understanding of that loving mercy
and forgiveness to a yet higher plane. We will celebrate that immense
and mighty love in the Paschal Triduum of Last Supper, Passion,
death – and then resurrection. It will be Easter.
Learning Jesus’ Way These Days
In this year of reading Luke’s Gospel, the last couple
Sundays before Holy Week toss a bit of a challenge to us here as
the third millennium begins. We – all of us, our whole world,
I mean, but especially the Christians, of course – have had
two thousand years to learn the spirit of Jesus. We’ve learned
a bit. If you watch, say, the movie Gladiator, you can
see what it was like before we learned some things from Jesus.
But we’re not finished learning. If you watch the evening
news, you can notice we’ve got a lot further to go. The End-of-Lent
Gospels try to help us with an important, but apparently very hard,
lesson from Jesus.
The first guitar strum of a favorite song, the particular beat
leading into a favorite rap record, the first chords of a favorite
symphony leap into our ears and thrill us; they can be for us powerful
symbols – a foretaste, a promise – of all that follows.
These tiny samples of familiar and favorite things can conjure up
suddenly the entire experience. Some well-remembered phrases can
do that, too.
Scripture isn’t the only place where that happens: try,
“Four score and seven years ago….” Or, “We
hold these truths to be self-evident….”
Listen to this phrase: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus….”
Easy to recognize, isn’t it? Christian worship often uses
such phrases as symbols, symbols that transport us to another place
and time. At this time of year, for example, listen for these words
at the beginning of a reading from Exodus: “The Lord spoke
to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt….” It’s
another such phrase, a mighty symbol of the wondrous story that
A Favorite Story
Consider this one: “A certain man had two sons.”
Jesus speaks that line. It’s famous. It’s the beginning
of his story about the Prodigal Son, one of the favorite stories
of the last two thousand years. We heard it just a couple weeks
ago in most of the churches of Western Christianity.
Take a look at the stories the Sunday Gospels present to us these
last few weeks of Lent. They are stories of mercy and forgiveness.
Luke has a good perspective for such stories. With the same profound
tenderness we find in his descriptions of Christ’s Nativity,
Luke here shows us how love can once again transcend normal expectations,
how it can fill a sad and wounded heart with prodigal mercy, and
bring youthful strength back to the aged, solemn legs of one who
has not run these long many years.
A Prodigal Son
Can you picture it – the Prodigal Son returning to his father?
It seems easy for me to feel the thoughts and cares of the young
son’s heart as he takes the road back to his father. What
I have trouble with, though, is his decision to go back; I don’t
know if I could do that. It was such a great risk.
I think he must have known his father well – well enough
to know that he would be received. But he couldn’t have guessed
his father would overwhelm him with such generous mercy and forgiveness.
He didn’t guess, I’m sure, that was how the opening
scene would go.
Imagine him making his way down the road to where his father’s
land was. Imagine the turmoil in his heart.
Or the abysmal emptiness of a heart near despair. Sometimes the
heart grows numb; sometimes hope runs out and the heart seems to
lie dead within. Feet move leadenly forward, almost in spite of
the person using them. It’s just inertia that makes one continue:
to stop would take more decision power than the person has left,
and so one just plods on in the same direction one started in.
Let our musings yield to the events of the story. With whatever
feelings were within him – or with a heart and mind empty
of all feeling – he sees his father. Imagine that scene: he
catches sight of his father – his old and venerable father
– running down the road toward him. Could he believe his eyes?
Did he wonder if it was a mirage? Did it even register on the awful
blackness of a heart too benumbed to care?
A Prodigal Father
We recognize familiar things and people because we have an image
of them in our mind. If they present themselves in a form too far
from our experience of them, we don’t recognize them. If it’s
been long since we’ve seen them, their memory can fade; if
they look a little different now, it may be hard to match present
appearance with what we were used to. A faded memory might not be
enough to provide recognition then.
No, one would have to know those people or things very well. One
would have to have often cherished their image in mind and heart.
So, here comes this young man over the crest of the hill or across
the far horizon. He’s different now from the last time his
father saw him: a little older, a lot more care-worn, thinner no
doubt, hesitant perhaps, dirtier from all that work with the pigs,
scragglier, more tattered, tired from his earlier life-style, his
labor, and his travel, dragging himself up the road. It would be
easy to mistake him for someone unknown.
Not for this father, though. This father must know his son very
well; he must have kept his image so alive in his heart that the
recognition – as it does seem in Jesus’ story –
is instantaneous. Immediately: It is my son!
As soon as he sees his son, off he runs – suddenly, immediately,
at that very moment.
God the Father
Here’s another thought. As we so often understand this story,
we take the Prodigal Father as a figure for God. Consider again
the idea that the Father runs, i.e., goes as fast as he can, to
his son. Consider that he starts the instant he sees him.
Now recall that (in one understanding of the parable, at least)
God is the Father we’re talking about. Compare God’s
speed of movement with the old, stately Near-Eastern gentleman’s.
Compare sight, also: how long would it take for God to be able to
see someone coming along a road? Add those two times together –
basically, zero plus zero.
So, how long would it take for God to meet a repentant person?
How long a road do you have to travel before God can see you? How
long does it take God to move from where he would be to where you
So, how long do we have to wait for God’s forgiveness?
It is interesting in this connection, too, to recall that it is
not the Prodigal Son who completes the trek back to his father’s;
it is the Father himself who runs down the road and brings that
return to completion.
God’s forgiveness – how fast does it come?
How long is zero?
“Coming Back to Oneself”
Notice, though, as Augustine’s words remind us, that the
boy had to “come back to himself” before he could go
back to his father ( Sermon 112A, 3-4).
Instead of the distractions of dissipation and wasteful spending
that clamored too loudly for the boy to hear anything else, he needed
quietly to look inward toward himself. It was there he saw his true
state. He began to know himself – as Augustine’s famous
prayer and his thoughts on Lent remind us: Noverim me:
Let me know myself.
There within, also, were memories – the memories of his
father and of the kindness he’d always shown his children.
In that memory the boy had a foretaste of his father’s forgiveness.
We could even say it was the father himself who caused that idea
What is Forgiveness?
James Dallen, in keeping with his thorough work on forgiveness
and the sacrament of reconciliation, sums up a good understanding
of forgiveness: to remove obstacles that stand in the way of union,
unity within oneself, unity within a community (s.v.
Forgiveness, in Michael Downey, ed. New Dictionary of Catholic
Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 406). When
you accept forgiveness you can be one with God – and one with
When we forgive, it is said, in that moment we no longer demand
the debt be repaid, no longer expect the wounding words will taken
back. We consider in that moment that the debt – money or
apology or whatever – is cancelled. Whoever was in debt to
us is – as far as we’re concerned – set free.
More than that, we no longer have to carry the burden of a debt
that is not paid back to us. That happens when we release the other
person, when we forgive them. We are set free.
The Woman Taken in Adultery
The following Sunday’s Gospel took up where the Prodigal
Son story left off. It is the Lord himself here who shows forgiveness,
not just an imaginary father in a parable.
You remember the event. A group of scribes and Pharisees brought
to Jesus a woman they accused of adultery. They quoted to Jesus
the Law that such a woman should be stoned. Jesus said nothing but
began writing on the ground with his finger.
They persisted. He said, “Let the one among you who is without
sin cast the first stone.” Then he went back to writing. The
accusers began to slink away, leaving the woman alone in front of
Jesus, who refused to condemn her.
In this incident Jesus redefines justice and what we think of
as the demands of justice. In his actions, the woman is forgiven
– by Jesus, and by those who had accused her and shouted for
her death – by Jesus out of his compassionate and forgiving
love, by the accusers out of their recognition of their own lack
of justice. No longer was anyone demanding anything of her –
except Jesus’ gentle and liberating command, “Sin no
On Palm Sunday, Luke will tell us of the Passion of Jesus. That
previous Sunday, John’s Gospel told us of the compassion of
Jesus. The two are not separate: if it were not for the compassion
of God there would have been no Passion of the Christ.
In Palm Sunday’s Gospel we see all of that played out on
a cosmic stage.
The Week of Palm Sunday
By writing in the dust of a Palestinian street, Jesus obtained
for the accused woman the reluctant but effective forgiveness of
a snarling bunch of vengeful people who found in the law a stipulation
that suddenly served their selfish purposes: punishing the woman
and tricking Jesus into a decision they could then accuse him of
and thus be rid of him and the challenge he was for them..
The Gospels of the next two Sundays, Palm-and-Passion Sunday and
Easter Sunday, show us by what power Jesus grants forgiveness. The
sins of all he takes on himself. This time he is the accused. Pontius
Pilate does the writing, and hangs it high above the ground on a
And the forgiveness this time is not reluctant; it is not wrung
out of a vengeful God. It is the fulfillment of a loving God’s
plan formed long ago.
Without the events of these following two Sundays’ Gospels,
the kind thoughts of the previous two Sundays might remain just
only kind thoughts. In light of the death and resurrection of Christ,
though, those two seemingly quiet stories of forgiveness thunder
out through our world, bringing grace, confidence, peace and repentance
to the likes of us.
But the likes of us – that’s whom Jesus has left
to continue his work in the world.
As so often, his kind and gentle deeds and words console and comfort
us, and show us how deeply loved we are by the greatest, all-powerful
Force in the universe. They also call us to recognize, though, that
Jesus wants us to follow in his ways. We are charged with the task
of bringing forgiveness to corners of the world where Jesus never
walked during his earthly life.
The vengeful and scheming still try to stone or crucify their
enemies – usually figuratively, but not always – and
so much of the world has not been set free from such people.
Can we help? Can we, after Lent helps us “come back to ourselves”
and Easter renews us – can we extend God’s forgiveness
to more of the world?
That, I think, is the challenge these end-of-Lent Sundays toss
out to us:
Forgiven, can we forgive?
For some insights on the father of the Prodigal
Son I am indebted to Sr. Sarah Sharkey, OP, PhD, Professor at Oblate
School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.