“I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
While traveling through this world of woe,
But there’s no sickness toil or danger
In that bright land to which I go.
I’m going there to see my Father,
I’m going there no more to roam.
I’m just a-going over Jordan,
I’m just a-going over home.”
Just yesterday, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we celebrated Laetare Sunday – the one Sunday set aside during Lent specifically for rejoicing.
Kind of a funny thought. Perhaps we’ve been in this Lenten mindset for long enough now that the thought of rejoicing before the long haul is over seems mildly incomprehensible. But now, as we find ourselves squarely in the middle of that Lenten fray – fasting, praying, giving, and sacrificing on the one hand, and keenly, miserably conscious of each failure to do so on the other – the Church in Her wisdom advises us to look up for a moment, and sneak a peek at the rays of glory from just beyond the horizon.
In short, we are made to remember that… well, we’re not just wallowing in penance and self-mortification here.
We’re going in a certain, specific direction.
To shake us out of the Lenten trance – so to speak – and remind us of that direction, we have been given in the Gospel reading that classic parable of mercy, the story of the Prodigal Son.
We all know the story – we’ve probably known it since before we can remember. And there is so much depth to this parable that simply can’t be plumbed in a brief blog post (though I encourage you all to go in and explore it – you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll find! Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is a good place to start.) That said, then, I will focus here on one, particular point: the Father’s Joy.
Having waited and waited for his ne’er-do-well son to return home from his reckless pursuit of lavish hedonism, the Father finally sees him coming round the bend, up the hill, towards him. The son may be reluctant, he may have had no other choice but to return, but still, he is on his way back.
And the Father? Disregarding all shame, all semblance of propriety, of dignity, even of common sense, he barrels down the hill to meet his disgraced, disheveled, and smelly son.
There’s still a lot of work to be done on that sorry sight of a son. But in the light of his very first steps to repentance, the Father’s reaction is overwhelming. And his joy is all-inclusive. He calls everyone to share his joy and take part in the welcome-home banquet: “…for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:24)
Our Heavenly Father loves us. He loves us in a way that we just cannot wrap our minds around, and that, unable to comprehend it, we may often find difficult to believe. He waits anxiously for us to return when we stray, and calls all Heaven to rejoice at our every little effort to repent. In fact, in His crazy love, He goes so far as to send His only Son to bring us back – even though it costs Him His life.
In the spirit of Laetare Sunday, we are called to enter into the Father’s joy. This joy does not invalidate the sorrow. It doesn’t pretend there is no hurt, no struggle or hardship, and it doesn’t claim that there isn’t still a long way to go. We are still to take up our crosses and continue on, following our Saviour up Calvary hill.
But in the midst of the Lenten grind, that joy is still being offered to us. By every minute repentance, with every little growth in virtue, we come ever closer to the Father’s house. And with every step forward, our Father rejoices – and calls us to share that joy! As Henri Nouwen notes, “I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the kingdom that is at hand.” (p.115) We are going in the right direction. We are coming home. Good Friday will be followed by Easter Sunday. And, after the death of repentance, through Christ, we will come into the glory of new life in Him.
May God bless you this Lent.
Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (New York, NY: Image Books, Doubleday, 1994).
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