by Father Mike Stubbs
The color purple, the advertising of fish fries on Friday, the announcement of the parish communal penance service: These are signs that Lent is here.
Parishes often hold a communal penance service during Lent. This practice follows the advice of the introduction to the Rite of Penance: “The season of Lent is most appropriate for celebrating the sacrament of penance. Already on Ash Wednesday the people of God has heard the solemn invitation: “Turn away from sin and believe the good news.’ It is therefore fitting to have several penitential celebrations during Lent, so that all the faithful may have an opportunity to be reconciled with God and their neighbor and so be able to celebrate the paschal mystery in the Easter triduum with renewed hearts.”
Ordinarily, the penance service includes the reading of Scripture. One frequently heard is the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Lk 15:1-3, 11-32. We usually call that passage the parable of the prodigal son. That familiar story tells about the son who returns home after spending his share of the inheritance. His father generously forgives him and then urges his older brother to also reconcile with the returnee.
This parable is the longest one in the New Testament. Instead of a snippet from everyday life, several scenes make up the parable: the dialogue between the younger son and his father, during which the son asks for the inheritance; the aftermath, in which the younger son squanders his money and goes to work as a lowly swineherd; the return of the younger son and his plea for forgiveness; and the dialogue between the father and the older son, in which the father encourages the older son to show compassion for his brother.
We should note that the parable could easily end after the reconciliation between the father and the younger son. That would be a natural stopping point. In fact, the Lectionary offers that as a shorter version of the reading.
This brings up a question: Did the parable originally conclude with the dialogue between the father and the returned prodigal, with the exchange between the father and the older son added later on, to expand upon the original parable? Or, does the parable reach its climax in the exchange between the father and the older son, with the escapades and return of the younger son a necessary prelude to that exchange? Your answer makes a difference concerning the main point of the parable. Does the parable focus upon the father’s compassion toward the younger son? Or, does the parable instead focus primarily upon the challenge to the older brother to also show mercy?
In any case, the parable presents the possibilities of two reconciliations: one between the father and the younger son, and one between the two brothers. That twofold reconciliation suggests a parallel with the sacrament of penance. We celebrate reconciliation between God and us, as well as reconciliation between us and our fellow human beings. Ordinarily when we sin, we sin not only against God, but also against at least one other person: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
The communal penance service brings out that fuller dimension of sin. It aims at reconciliation on many levels. Pope John Paul II expressed it well: “This reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations, which repair the other breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1469).