Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

Reconciliation is a word that stands out in today’s Mass.

The Collect begins, “O God who, through your Word, reconcile the human race to yourself in a wonderful way…”

In the 2nd reading, in just a few verses, St Paul uses the word five times.

We don’t hear it in the other readings, but we see the reality. In the Gospel, we meet the elderly father of the prodigal son. We can imagine him: his eyes scanning the horizon from an upstairs window, then spotting his returning son far in the distance, rushing downstairs, hitching up his tunic and running through the village – a most undignified thing for an old man to do – and greeting his son with a hug and a kiss. Reconciliation in spades, with a meal to follow!

In the 1st reading, the Israelites celebrate their arrival in the Promised Land by keeping the Passover. The manna ceases and henceforth they will eat local produce, the fruit of the land. “The shame of Egypt”, it’s mysteriously said, is taken away from them; they are free at last; they are home; they are in the place the Lord wants them to be. The Promised Land, like the father’s house,  is a symbol of peace restored – of reconciliation.

So, says St Paul, “God has reconciled us to himself in Christ”. “It is all God’s work”, he says. Friendship replaces enmity, peace war, unity division. This is the heart of Easter surely. It’s why our Lord died on the Cross and rose from the dead. Reconciliation is God’s intent. It is the goal of Redemption. God the Father has taken the initiative. He has fired the missile of his Son into the world, not to destroy but to recreate. In our humanity, the humanity received from Mary, he offered himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. His love dissolved our sins, our un-love, the obstacles to unity and peace. And God the Father who willed his Son’s offering accepts it and raises him from death. So, “for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here.”

Reconciliation is a long word; it’s abstract. But we know what it means. We know what it means in the family sphere, between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, in-laws. Relationships swing to and fro. We know, we know! And then, a second sphere, public, social, political. We are seeing it every day, two nations locked in combat. How long-standing, how deep, how apparently ineradicable both these domestic and the social-political conflicts can be. What suffering they bring! At the personal level, isn’t it telling how much we suffer from lack of harmony, from friendships lost, what a sharp pain goes with these things? We are programmed for peace. Take a family round a table: for all the ups and downs a guest can sense the deeper harmony and be drawn into it. It’s a postcard from heaven, that kind of thing. In his Rule St Benedict tells his monks to restore peace with their adversary before nightfall. It’s revealing that he says “restore peace” or literally “return to peace”. Peace is the default position. A monk I knew had a very short fuse. Often, after night prayer, he’d go and kneel before a brother he had rowed with during the day. If only these upsets could always be so swiftly resolved! May some reconciliation at least be a grace of this Lent!

Rising above it all is the Cross – the great reconciliation worked by the Father through Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. It works the prime peace of peace with God and the forgiveness of sins, and it flows out into a human coming together – the new creation. It astonished the early Christians when those old enemies Jews and Gentiles came together in Christ and shared the one bread and one cup. Indeed, the Eucharist is the great postcard from heaven – “looking forward to seeing you all at the heavenly banquet”, it says.

“It is all God’s work…God was in Christ…” It’s clear to St Paul that this reconciliation has been made: the Promised Land is there to be entered, the Father’s house is open, the meal is ready. Theologians call this “objective redemption.” The sacrifice of the Cross has been accepted, the stone has been rolled away, and the Risen One passes through the closed doors with “Peace be with you” on his lips. “Christ, the undefiled, hath sinners to his Father reconciled”, we sing in the Easter sequence. This is the gift. We open our hand to receive it. “Subjective redemption”, say the theologians. It’s our taking the gift to ourselves, walking through the open door. The meal is there, and we sit down and eat. “Be reconciled with God.”

And so St. Paul adds another thought. What was done once is made constantly present, unfailing available. With his fellow-apostles and preachers, Paul has been “given the ministry of reconciliation”. God, he says, has “put” in the apostles the “word of reconciliation”. It’s a striking phrase. It means the word of proclamation: God has acted. So, “repent and believe in the Gospel”.  It’s also the “word” of baptism by which our sins are forgiven.  We think of our catechumens. And it’s the “word” of pardon for sins after baptism: “And I absolve you.”

On Friday last, the whole Church throughout the world – acting “synodally” – turned to Mary to beg for peace and reconciliation. Not to wave a magic wand but to voice our trust. It won’t go to waste. At the Annunciation, through the consent of Mary, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, entered the world. Through the Act of Consecration, we were uniting ourselves with Mary’s “yes”, so that Christ’s peace can enter our contemporary conflict. “IT is all God’s work.” The Cross stands. Reconciliation has been done. The river is flowing from the side of Christ. So let us click “accept”, for ourselves and for the world. Strikingly, the Holy Father’s homily in St Peter’s on Friday was about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Let me end with a quote: “The Lord enters our home, as he did that of Mary of Nazareth and brings us unexpected amazement and joy – the joy of forgiveness… every spiritual renewal, starts there, from God’s forgiveness.  May we not neglect Reconciliation, but rediscover it as the sacrament of joy.  Yes, the sacrament of joy, for our shame for our sins becomes the occasion for an experience of the warm embrace of the Father, the gentle strength of Jesus who heals us, and the “maternal tenderness” of the Holy Spirit.  That is the heart of Confession. Brothers and sisters, let us go forth to receive forgiveness”. Yes, go to the Promised Land with Jesus our Joshua. Go to the Father’s house with the prodigal son. Go in the power of that great, first reconciliation to all the others our heart longs for and our world so urgently needs.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 27 March 2022


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