Today is just a little bit different. Today the Church uses rose or violet colored vestments instead of the usual Lenten purple. Unlike the rest of Lent, instrumental music may be heard at Mass today, and the altar may be decorated with flowers. This is Laetare Sunday, named for the first word of the Entrance Antiphon for today's mass. Laetare means "rejoice," and our opening chant begins, "Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast."
The words of the entrance chant are meant to set the tone for the rest of the Mass. (This is why the Church asks us in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal to sing the proper antiphon from the official liturgical books of the Church, and not substitute some other song of our choosing). The tone for today's Mass is clear -- be joyful! We are still in the penitential season of Lent, but the tone -- like the liturgical vestments -- is somewhat lightened. For today we discover what the suffering and death of our Lord has accomplished for us. In one word: reconciliation.
St. Paul states it very clearly in today's second reading (2 Cor 5:17-21). I implore you to read it carefully.
Every Catholic should be familiar with this verse, and be ready to quote it when speaking with non-Catholics about sacramental Confession. This is the "ministry of reconciliation" Paul speaks of, which he said is the "message entrusted to us [the Church]" by God. Through this ministry, God appeals to us, through the Church, to be reconciled to himself.Brothers and sisters: Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Confession is also called Penance and Reconciliation. These three names all tell us something different about the sacrament. "Confession" describes our action of freely admitting our sins and failures before God's ordained representative. "Penance" describes our actions performed in reparation out of sorrow for our sins. But "Reconciliation" describes not our action, but God's action towards us. As St. Paul describes, we are made "a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come." We are reconciled to God, through Christ, and the vehicle for this is the ministry of reconciliation God entrusted to the Church.
Today's Gospel reading is the very powerful story of the Prodigal Son. It is a parable of a son who turned away from his father and his father's ways, and who lived to regret it. Life outside of his father's house was miserable and hard. "Wretched" would be a better word. And so he decides to repent of his ways and come back home, begging his father to at least accept him as a servant.
Is this not how we sometimes can feel when we go to Confession? Perhaps we've been living a life for some time which was far from our Heavenly Father's ways. We have been far outside of His house. And we are tired. We have been living in the metaphorical pig sty with the Prodigal Son, and we have had enough. We long to return to the life of the Church and be reconciled to God, even if it is just as one of his lowly servants.
But God doesn't do probation. His reconciliation is not conditional. You will never hear in the Confessional, "Alright, we are going to give you another try. We'll let you back in, but you have to start from the bottom and work your way up." God is like the father in the parable. As soon as he saw his son walking up the path toward him "he ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." He dressed his son in the finest robes, put a gold ring on his finger, slaughtered the fattened calf and put on a feast!
"'This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began."
We use that word "celebration" often in speaking of the sacrament of the Eucharist. We refer to the priest who "celebrates Mass." We don't often think of "celebrating" the sacrament of Confession. But we should. God celebrates each time a sinner returns to him. And the penitent is the honored guest at the feast.
Today, the Church reminds us to rejoice! "Be joyful, all who were in mourning." It is the Church's great joy to invite you into this celebration. In the words of St. Paul, "We implore you on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God." Or in the words of the psalmist "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord." You've been given a great invitation. You just need to decide to RSVP.
God bless, and enjoy your day!