The Father’s Embrace

Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in ordinary time, Year C.

When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to see someone holding up a sign at a football game with the words “John 3:16” written on it. Even today, if you were to ask a representative sample of Christians to share a bible verse they have memorized, John 3:16 would probably make the top of the list. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The popularity of this verse comes from the fact that it is a compelling summary of the gospel, the good news of salvation. God sent His Son in order to save us from our sins. He didn’t have to send Him, but He chose to, out of love. Sin harms and can even break our relationship with God in this life, and it puts us at risk of eternal separation from God in hell. If we remain in our sin, unrepentant and unforgiven, we will perish. This is what Jesus died to save us from. He died so that we might not perish but might have eternal life.

When the English writer G.K. Chesterton was asked why he joined the Catholic Church as an adult, he replied, “To get rid of my sins.” Even if we have other reasons for becoming Catholic and remaining so, this is the fundamental reason: to get rid of our sins. After His Resurrection, Jesus entrusted the ministry of reconciliation to His Apostles when He breathed on them and said, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). This power has been handed down in unbroken succession from the time of the Apostles to the bishops and priests of today. And Jesus would not have shared this power had He not desired that it be used. Jesus knew that we would fall into sin, sometimes even serious sin, after our baptism. And He wanted there to be a way by which we could be welcomed back into the Father’s House even after wandering away from it. And so, He gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this Sacrament, the story of the lost son becomes our story as well. Coming to our senses, acknowledging our sins, and expressing sorrow for them, we get up and return to the Father’s House. And God the Father, seeing us from a distance, runs out to meet us. He receives our confession of sin, embraces us, and restores us to the dignity of sonship which we have lost. The baptismal robe which we have soiled and stained is returned to us refreshed and renewed.

Why would we not want this story to be our story as well? Why would we not want to enter into this drama of confession and forgiveness, and experience the Father’s merciful embrace? Why would we not want to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation? If we’ve been away from this Sacrament for a while, and if we ask ourselves why, our excuse can probably be summarized in one of three ways: “I don’t need to go,” “I’m not ready to go,” or “I’m afraid to go.”

First, “I don’t need to go.” At a minimum, the Church asks that we go to Reconciliation once a year. This arises from the obligation to receive Holy Communion once a year, ideally during the Easter Season. Many of us, myself included, grew up receiving Holy Communion, without really thinking, anytime we came to Mass. Very little has been said over the past sixty years about the Church’s constant teaching that we need to receive Holy Communion worthily, without the stain of serious sin on our soul. I, for example, didn’t hear this teaching from the pulpit until I was a freshman in college. Anytime we commit a serious sin, we are to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until we have brought this sin to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Notice that in our gospel today, before they can enter into the joy of the feast, before they can experience the fullness of the banquet which is offered to them, both sons—younger and older—need to be reconciled with their father.

We may think that we don’t need to go to confession because we aren’t aware of this teaching of the Church. On the other hand, we might be aware of it, but we might not believe it. We might think, as many do, that we can just “go to God directly” to be forgiven of our sins. “We don’t need the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We don’t need to tell our sins to a priest.” But this is not how God chose to save us. God could have saved us virtually, without any human interaction, from the safe distance of heaven. God did not have to become incarnate in order to save us from our sins. But He chose to, out of love. This is the way in which God freely chose to save us: not virtually, but incarnationally. And this is what God continues to do through the Sacrament of Reconciliation: He saves us incarnationally, through a physical, tangible encounter with Jesus mediated by the priest.

Another reason why we might think that we don’t need to go to confession is that we are not aware of having committed any serious sins. And if that’s actually true, then praise God! But when a husband is truly in love with his wife, he doesn’t just want to avoid hurting her in a serious way. “Well, at least I haven’t killed her mother. At least I haven’t committed adultery…” No! A husband who is truly in love with his wife wants to avoid hurting her even in small and seemingly insignificant ways. And when he is aware of having hurt her in those ways, he wants to say, “I’m sorry,” and seek her forgiveness. This is true for our relationship with God as well. If we are truly in love with Him, we will want to avoid hurting Him even in small and seemingly insignificant ways. And we will want to say, “I’m sorry,” even if we haven’t committed any serious sins.

A second reason why we might be avoiding the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that we are not ready to go. Perhaps we’re stuck in the habit of committing some serious sin. It’s possible that we might not be ready to let that sin go. We might be trying to convince ourselves that it’s not really a sin or that we are perfectly happy despite committing it. Even after he squandered his entire inheritance, the younger son wasn’t ready to return home. It was only when he hit rock bottom, when he found himself tending swine and dying from hunger, that he came to his senses. And sometimes that has to happen for us as well. Sometimes we’re not ready to go to confession because we haven’t hit rock bottom. We’re still trying to convince ourselves that we’re happy, that we’re fine, that things will eventually improve without giving our sin up. If that’s where we are at right now, there’s still hope for us. But we have to pray to God that He will knock some sense into us, that He will bring us to our knees, and open our eyes to the predicament we are in.

A final reason why we might be avoiding the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that we’re afraid to go. Maybe it’s been a long time and we don’t remember how to make a good confession. But that’s why we have the internet. That’s also why we have priests. There are a lot of great resources online to walk you through the Sacrament, and I’m more than happy to do that with you as well. G.K. Chesterton become Catholic to get rid of his sins; I became a priest to help people get rid of their sins.

We may also be afraid of going to confession because we are ashamed of what we’ve done and embarrassed to tell it to another person. Well, join the club. I feel the same things when I go to confession. It’s hard to make a good confession; it takes a lot of humility, and sometimes it’s humiliating. But let me tell you, being on the other side, as a priest, is amazing. I’ve cried the most as a priest while hearing confessions: not because I’m shocked or discouraged by people’s sins, but because I’m inspired by their courage to confess them, and by the opportunity I have to be an instrument of God’s love and mercy. Some of the greatest miracles take place in this Sacrament, and I have a front row seat to observe them.

Don’t be afraid to go to confession. Or, if you are afraid, that’s okay; just don’t let that be the reason why you don’t go. Courage is not the absence of fear but doing what’s right despite the fear. If it’s been a while since your last confession, and you’re afraid, take courage. Get up and go to your heavenly father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” Confess your sins, express your sorrow for them, and encounter the merciful embrace of the Father, who has been waiting for you in the confessional, waiting for you to come home.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This is not just a verse to memorize, but a verse to live. And we do so, whenever we go to confession. Don’t let the parable of the prodigal son remain a story from the bible; let it be your story as well. Amen.