Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 11, 2018
by Marina McCoy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, teaching ancient Greek philosophy and in the PULSE program. She is also mom to both a BC alum and a current BC student, and her husband works at BC's McMullen Museum of Art. Her books include Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Literature (Oxford University Press). Marina also volunteers, visiting inmates who form the Lay Dominican community at Norfolk Prison, and writes a monthly column on spirituality for Loyola Press at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/. She recently did "basic training" in spiritual direction at the BC School of Theology and Ministry as part of her sabbatical.
Love and Reconciliation
In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14) God sends Jesus into the world to reconcile us. Jesus is sent as life. Jesus is sent as love.
St Paul writes that God is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4-5). In his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Walter Kaspar reflects on the nature of mercy. There, he notes that the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, means to “have a heart with or for the poor” (Kaspar, 21). Mercy is an attitude of the heart. In mercy, we refuse to keep a distance from what is poor or broken. For example, in practicing the corporal works of mercy, we enter into the lives of those who are ill, grieving, incarcerated, hungry, thirsty, or lonely. But these actions are only truly merciful if we allow our hearts, and not only our hands, to enter into human need.
Mercy also includes forgiveness. Forgiveness asks us to dare to enter into the messiness of human relationship with hearts of mercy. We learn how to have a heart for what is poor, but not only materially poor. We learn how to love the poverty of human nature itself, as God loves it. When we forgive, we are set free from the burdens of resentment and anger and able to live more fully in the present. But to forgive only for my own freedom is still incomplete. It does not yet extend into genuine love, which seeks the good of another. Jesus invites us into something deeper: a friendship with God where we love others the way that God loves them.
Many philosophical theories of forgiveness define it as forswearing revenge and feelings of resentment (e.g., Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration). If I forgive a friend who has harmed me, I decide not to harm him and I make a good effort to give up negative feelings, too. Christian forgiveness asks even more: we are invited into a deep identification and empathy with the other who has hurt me. The Lord’s Prayer asks us to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). We forgive because we also are in need of forgiveness. We forgive because in our human weakness, we are essentially the same.
Forgiveness takes time and has many layers. I have lately been thinking of forgiveness as something like peeling an onion (maybe even a smelly, slightly rotten one). As I move more deeply into forgiveness, it is like stripping away different layers of thoughts, feelings, and attitudes and slowly letting them go. Sometimes I think the process is finished, only to discover there is yet another level. However, if I bring each new layer to God in prayer and try to cooperate with God’s invitations, I slowly move closer to the center. Eventually, even the innermost core disappears, and there is finally freedom.
Jesus does not stop with forgiveness, however. Jesus also asks us to reconcile. Reconciliation is more than forgiveness in that forgiveness promises not to harm or resent another, while reconciliation is about the restoration of relationship. If forgiveness is like shutting the door on the past, reconciliation is like the opening of a new door. Reconciliation is homecoming.
Jesus gives us this image of reconciliation as “coming home.” He tells the parable of the prodigal son, who takes his share of the inheritance, spends it in a dissolute life, and returns to his father, expecting to be treated only as a servant. Instead, the father welcomes his son home (Luke 15:11-32). But the father doesn’t wait for the son to knock on the door and to say he is sorry. Instead, he runs out to him, full of compassion, before he even knows what the son is going to say. The father welcomes, embraces, and celebrates. With this parable, Jesus gives us a model not only of God’s love for us, but also as a model for how we are to be with one another.
My favorite reflection on reconciliation is Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen reflects on the Rembrandt painting of the same name, pictured above. He shows how we can find ourselves like each of its three main characters: the son who desires forgiveness; the father who forgives; or the elder brother who struggles with resentment. At different times in life we might wrestle with each of these roles. We may wonder, am I really worthy of forgiveness? Or we may place barriers in the way of others who want to reconcile, because we are lost in our own fears and anxieties. Or we may struggle to reconcile with another who has hurt us, but who desperately wishes to “come home.”
The key to the resolution of each of these struggles is the knowledge that each one of us is God’s beloved: loved, embraced, and celebrated. Nouwen says that the prodigal father is precisely the one who has known the experience of being the lost son (or daughter) who is received and forgiven, and then can go on to share this with others.
Reconciliation of relationship takes even more time than forgiveness, because there are two people involved, each of whom needs to be free to pray, discern, and choose. Wounds take time to heal and healing cannot be rushed. If the old ways of relating were unhealthy, reconciliation may require that we let past patterns die and create something entirely new. Or perhaps reconciliation does not mean close relationship at all, but simply recognizing that we both belong to the same wider community. Here, prayerful discernment guides our way forward. What is God asking us to do? We reconcile not with our own strength alone, but with the gentle and powerful assistance of God.
Nouwen writes that God not only offers forgiveness and reconciliation, but also “wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them” (p. 113). Reconciliation is not all seriousness. It is an occasion for celebrating.
On Laetare Sunday, we are invited to rejoice. We rejoice because we are forgiven. We rejoice because we can forgive. We rejoice because God really loves what is human, and so can we.
Suggestions for prayer and practice:
1. Receive the sacrament of reconciliation. If it has been a long time since receiving the sacrament, it can help to let the priest know at the start, so that he can help you to be more comfortable.
2. Prayerfully reflect on whether there is a relationship in need of healing. Is there one small step I can take in order to offer peace or healing to another? Can I patiently accept another’s freedom to respond?
3. When it is difficult to forgive, try a simple prayer of wishing goodness for the other person. Imagine sending the sunshine of God’s love to the other person. Keep it simple.
4. Read Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. How does this story resonate with my own experience this Lent?
Please submit a comment or response to this week’s Reflection below. We will post as many possible.