Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) (March 31, 2019) - Laetare Sunday
Today is Laetare Sunday, the day in the middle of Lent on which the Church calls us to rejoice, as the Latin name suggests. Why would we read the story of the Prodigal Son on such a day?
The word "prodigal" means “generous” but also “spendthrift” and “squandering,” and it actually applies more to the father than it does to the younger son: the father knows beforehand what is in the son's heart and how the son will handle the money, and when the son returns home the father is ready to give him even more. This is in spite of the fact that the son breaks his father's heart: the son sees his father only as a source of money – and a supposed resultant freedom – and is eager to cut himself off from anything else the father offers...
More than wealth, what the father offers to this wastrel is love, but the young man does not see how much his father yearns for him to return that love. When the son returns and approaches his father's house, the father is already out on the road, carefully watching, and sees his son coming and recognizes him even while he is still far off. He is eager to offer his son full restoration of everything, not only wealth but his original place in the family, something the son can receive and cherish now that he has found humility and is willing to repent and redeem his ungratefulness by a new way of life.
We can see how this part of the story calls to us, but the tale is not complete until we consider the older brother, who would have been generally considered, precisely as the older brother, to have more inheritance rights than the daughters or the younger sons. He clearly works on the basis of establishing his merit and increasing how much the father “owes” him; he never knows the father's love because he never feels that he has earned it yet. There is a certain arrogance here, a belief that he can be accepted and even loved sheerly on the basis of his own efforts and sacrifices, and his attitude towards the welcome which the father offers his brother is very revelatory of the difference between him and his father.
Our merit and worthiness, even our sinfulness, are not what God is about. Our God is always on the lookout for us, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, already gifting us with what we need to live properly and to discover and live in His love – but our eyes and our hearts are childishly turned away from Him.
Here that amounts to our holding tight to our guilt and our shame, refusing to open ourselves to accept the forgiveness, peace, freedom, confidence, and everything else that comes with God's love. Our Father's love is so constant, perfect, and overwhelming that even guilt doesn't matter – as long as we are seeking Him in a concrete and heartfelt manner and giving ourselves to the humbling act of continually turning and returning to Him.
All of this is not a matter of our understanding and insight, not if we want to truly profit from it. It is a personal matter, a question of our hearts and our radical simplicity and trust as children of God. Thus it is a matter of our turning to our Father in prayer to ask him to help us make that passage from our childish refusal to be loved to that childlike trust and joyful openness to Him.
If we can do that, this truly can become Laetare Sunday for us.