The Embrace of the Father

In Luke 15, the Pharisees and scribes are seething with suspicion and envy. The problem? Jesus is hanging out with sinners – welcoming them with kindness, dining with them, and curiously getting to know them. The Pharisees feel a conviction that those sinners need to know the truth! How can they stop sinning if we don’t tell them clearly the difference between right and wrong?

Jesus responds by telling them three stories. God the Father seeks out the lost sheep, seeks out the lost coin, and seeks out his lost sons. In each story God’s desire is not to scold or to punish, but to pursue what had been lost, to embrace with delight, to reconcile, and to restore. In each story, God’s deepest desire is to celebrate the heavenly wedding feast with all his scattered children. He wants all of us at the table, where we can celebrate the one-flesh union between his own Son and all those human beings who dare to desire so much delight.

The younger son (the “prodigal”) comes to his senses and begins to tell the fuller truth to himself – not just about the legal rules he has violated, but about how much harm he has caused in his relationships. He has sinned against heaven. He has sinned against his good father. He rises and returns to the house of his father.

As much as the son desires to return, the father’s desire is infinitely greater. He sees his son from afar, rushes out to meet him, and embraces him.

Here is where the Pharisees and scribes have it so wrong. The Father’s embrace comes first. In his eternal love and kindness, he eagerly seeks us out. He embraces us with delight – while we are yet sinners! Full conversion will come in due time – gradually, and always in a way that keeps inviting us to come further up and further into the infinite vastness and intensity of his delight.

If we are not secure in the Father’s embrace, there is no way we will keep choosing our journey of conversion. If we are like the younger son, we will (sooner or later) return to the familiar smallness and squalor of old and familiar behaviors that cause harm to self and others. If we believe ourselves to be unlovable, and to be lacking in dignity, it’s only a matter of time before we start behaving that way!

If we are like the older son (or the Pharisees or the scribes), we will self-righteously cling to “the truth” – which is really just a list of propositions that allow us to feel good enough about ourselves. If we can control and manage our behaviors, we can style ourselves to be “good” and not like those other people who disregard the truth.  But what we are calling “the truth” is only a very partial glimpse of the living God. Without the relationship, it becomes a caricature and a distortion.

Yes, morality matters. Yes, moral relativism is a problem and a threat. When each person gets to define for himself or herself what is true, good, or beautiful, then innocent people will indeed suffer!

But the answer is not the answer of the scribes and Pharisees. It is not the answer of the elder son. They are fixating on the rules while ignoring the covenantal relationship that is the foundation for all those rules! Jesus teaches us that every single law hinges upon the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.

This past spring, I was chaplain at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. Bob Schuchts asked us to consider what the experience of the younger son would have been like if he returned home and was greeted, not with his father’s embrace, but by his older brother.

What a question! And it’s not an abstract question. In our church families, heartbroken humans emerge, month after month. Desire is awakening in their hearts, even though their lives are a mess. They are trying to find their way back to the house of the Father. And what do they encounter here? The Father’s embrace and an invitation into deeper relationship? Or a checklist of expectations for how they are to behave if they want to belong to our club?

Truth-telling is important, but I find that many of us Christians today (like those Pharisees and scribes) are more interested in comparing, categorizing, and condemning. We want to tell “the truth” about particular moral issues while ignoring the deeper and fuller truth about who God is and who we are as human beings.

God tells the truth with kindness, never with contempt. His pursuit of us and his embrace of us communicate to us the Truth of our dignity and our destiny. He reminds us of what we are capable, and emboldens us in our desire. THEN we begin to grow and mature and bear fruit.

The contempt of the older son is a symptom of his underlying shame. I’ve learned to watch for that connection. Whenever contempt for human poverty shows up – whether it’s the poverty of “those people” or my own poverty – it’s a symptom of shame. It’s a symptom of seeking to earn love by performance rather than receive it as gift.  It’s a symptom that we may not truly believe the amazing and foundational Truth of the Gospel – that God makes the first move, that he is always eager to embrace, and that he desires to share everything with us.

We all desperately need to hear that Good News proclaimed to us – usually more than once. We are shattered by sin, and there are many shards of our heart that still don’t know this Truth. The more fully we receive the Gospel, the more we grow and mature and bear fruit.

The saints are those who keep growing into the Father’s embrace. Their deepest suffering is an increasing realization of the infinite gap between themselves and God.  The more they grow, the more they realize how far they are – no longer in shame or discouragement, but in a loving longing that aches for union and realizes there will still be a wait before all fullness comes.

As a result, authentic saints exhibit an incredible kindness to sinners – because they feel a kinship. The gap between God and the saint remains infinite. The gap between the saint and the sinner is miniscule. The saint begins to share in God’s desire for every sinner to be embraced, reconciled, restored, and celebrated. The saint begins to share God’s delight in human dignity, treating self and others with honor rather than contempt – especially when human poverty shows up. Here we find the truer and deeper meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” – to welcome human poverty in self and others and allow God the Father to embrace with honor and delight.

Will we allow the Father’s embrace to change our own hearts? Will we desire the same embrace for others – even those we dislike or despise? The Father desires them and us to come into the feast! His embrace is all-transforming. But he never pressures or forces. The decision is ours.

A Marvelous Exchange

O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

We pray these words each year on the eve of January 1 in the Liturgy of the Hours. In the wake of so many gift exchanges, we reflect on the one exchange that truly matters. The Son of God, who is eternally divine, willingly empties himself of his divine privileges (Phil 2:6-11). He assumes human nature, born of the Virgin Mary in the flesh.

The result is a one-flesh union that weds humanity and divinity together in the person of Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God, who is himself God (John 1:18). He has truly taken up human flesh. He dwelt among us; he abides with us still.

The theological term for this mystery is “the Hypostatic Union” – which means that Jesus is truly human and truly divine, with both natures united in the one person, who is the eternal Word of God. Mary gives birth to that one eternal person, which is why the early Church (at the Council of Ephesus in 431) insisted that it is right to call her theotokos – “God-bearer” – or as we typically say in English, “Mother of God.” She gave birth to a person, not a nature.

More importantly, humanity and divinity are truly wedded together. This is the first taste of the eternal marriage feast between Jesus and his bride, the Church. A week ago, on Christmas Eve, the Liturgy of the Hours pondered the same mystery:

When the sun rises in the morning sky, you will see the King of kings coming forth from the Father like a radiant bridegroom from the bridal chamber.

The Father sends his own Son among us like a bridegroom, traveling to wed his bride and bring her into his Kingdom. This process begins with the Incarnation – the Word becoming flesh. In his person, humanity and divinity enter a one-flesh union that makes it possible for us to receive grace upon grace from divine fullness. The process continues with him freely and totally giving himself on the Cross, truly dying, and truly rising. Then, in the Ascension, he exalts human flesh in the presence of his Father. All is prepared for the feast – and we are invited to share in it!

We now live in this in-between time of “already but not yet.” Humanity has already been wedded to divinity in the person of Jesus. Human flesh is already exalted at the right hand of the Father. All of humanity is invited to share in this marriage covenant. The only question is what we desire and whether we will give our consent.

Recall the story of the merciful father in Luke 15 (known more popularly as the story of the “prodigal son”). The larger context of the story is the eternal feast, to which we are all invited. The older son is still preferring his own not-so-marvelous means of exchanging: If I do this, then you have to do that. He would rather be an employee than a son. He is enraged with envy as he watches his younger brother freely receive far more than he ever dared to dream or desire.

His father speaks tenderly to him, “My son, you are here with me always – all that I have is yours!” (Luke 15:31).

Here we encounter the profound truth of the “marvelous exchange” that Jesus brings. All that is his is ours. That means that we, too, are beloved children of God. It means that we, too, get to share fully in the eternal marriage feast – not because we have been diligent in our duty, but because God delights in us as his children and desires to celebrate with us forever.

A wise priest recently heard my Confession and reminded me of my own favorite story of Luke 15. I spend so much of my time laboring – chasing the illusion of getting “caught up.” I allow myself to succumb to the unrealistic expectations of others – and to my own even more demanding expectations. That puts me in the role of the elder son, toiling away in isolation, and envying those who seem to have enough time to feast. Eventually that joyless labor exhausts me, and then I shift roles to the younger son, seizing joyless pleasure for myself with entitled anger. When I get stuck in that elder son / younger son cycle, my life truly becomes miserable.

And the Father’s gentle invitation is still always there: My son… All that is mine is yours…

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom” (n. 526). Will I claim that identity as a beloved child of God? Will I surrender all of myself to him so that I can receive from his fullness?

It is a special invitation to a marvelous exchange. I am invited to give God my humanity: ALL of myself, just as I am. My tendency is to focus on the more presentable pieces of myself – which are not nearly as amazing as I like to think they are. Those are usually my “elder son” pieces, but God desires my “younger son” pieces as well. And he desires the pieces of me that are buried yet more deeply – some of which are still a mystery even to me. But he knows them all, because he sees me in my wholeness. He desires ALL the pieces – so that he can divinize all of them as he restores me and exchanges my shame for his Glory.

In the 300’s, Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.” The Father invites me to give all the shattered pieces to him so that he can pour divine fullness into all of me. It is an invitation to vulnerable receptivity in an intimacy that exceeds that of the one-flesh union of earthly marriage – which is the best sign and symbol for what is to happen. But earthly marriage will fade away in the Kingdom (Matthew 22:30), giving way to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. Even now we are invited to surrender ourselves with the vulnerable receptivity and humble dependence of little children.

When we do so, we receive the power to become sons and daughters of God. We receive grace upon grace from his divine fullness. We begin sharing in the feast.

Joyful Repentance

Gaudete! Rejoice!

The 3rd Sunday of Advent is that day when priests around the world boldly don pink vestments and try to convince people they’re actually wearing “rose.” Let the pink jokes commence.

More importantly, let the joyful repentance commence. This Sunday is a reminder to us that repentance and joy are meant to go together!

Advent is a penitential season, meaning it is a time for repentance and eager preparation. We are preparing for Christmas, yes, but above all else we long intensely for the coming of Jesus in glory.

When Jesus comes again in full justice, all that is hidden will be made manifest. Each individual and every collective group will have their stories told in full truth, with all the nations assembled to hear it. No longer will the wicked succeed in deluding themselves and others, shading the truth and cloaking their misdeeds in shadow. Jesus will reveal and unveil; Jesus will judge; Jesus will vindicate.

Hence the penitential nature of Advent. Apart from repentance and mercy, who can possibly stand in the face of his full truth-telling? We began Advent crying out in our longing amidst the darkness, humbly recognizing that we cannot escape the fallenness of this world without a Savior.

But we so easily forget that Jesus’ main motive in coming again is to invite us into the eternal wedding feast! He desires to share his JOY with us. Just read the Gospels. Notice how many stories take place within the context of a meal, or how many of the parables describe feasting at table. One of the chief accusations against Jesus is that he welcomes sinners and dines with them (Luke 15:2).

Jesus proceeds to tell three stories: about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. The final story (which we tend to call “the prodigal son”) is addressed directly to the Pharisees and scribes, who are much more like the joyless older son! Both sons have become miserable in their sins. The father’s only interest is to invite them into a feast! He will gladly relinquish any claim of condemnation against them – if that is their desire. The story ends unconcluded. We don’t get to hear whether or not the older son repents and decides to enter the feast. The bigger question is what each of us will decide.

The 3rd Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete being Latin for “Rejoice!” In places where the Mass is said in Latin, the opening antiphon begins with the chanting of that word Gaudete, quoting the words of Paul in Philippians 4:4-5:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.

Rejoice always – even when the powers of darkness seem to be prevailing. Rejoice always, even when you feel HopeSick. Rejoice always, even when you find yourself mired in sin and powerless to change.

The Lord is near. He is eager to be present to us. Jesus speaks his “I do” to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross. He promises to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Our infidelity doesn’t alter his unconditional commitment to be good to us.

Not only does he still love us, but he still invites us to feast with him in joy! We have a hard time wrapping our minds around that invitation.

Repentance is NOT a matter of feeling bad about ourselves.  That is shame. Feeling shame following sin goes back to our first parents in Eden. It is perhaps normal to feel shame in our shattered state, but more often than not our shame hinders true repentance. Adam hid from God as from a tyrant. Even in that moment, God promised salvation through “the woman” and her offspring, who will crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15).

We cannot crush the head of the serpent ourselves; we don’t have to. Jesus has already won that victory. He is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He gladly washes us of our sins in the blood he poured out for us. More importantly, he invites us into the wedding feast of the lamb! He desires a one-flesh union with us in the eternal marriage feast!

We feel badly, of course, about what we have done – especially when we see and name the ways in which our sins have harmed others and harmed us. Like the prophets, we weep over the ruins of Jerusalem – caused in part by the harm others have done to us, caused in part by the harm in which we have willingly colluded.

Jesus, in the line of the prophets, also wept over Jerusalem. He weeps over their sins, yes. Even more, he weeps over the harm their sins have done. But if we read the text, his greatest grief (like the father in Luke 15) is that they do not desire to receive the love and delight that is freely being offered!

Tearful repentance and joy are meant to go together. Just as the Paschal Triduum is one integral celebration, so also our weeping over the ruin caused by sin is meant to be, simultaneously, a joyful entry into the Kingdom as beloved sons and daughters who truly belong there.

In Catholic and Anglican Tradition, there are Seven Penitential Psalms. Depending on your Bible’s Psalm numbering, those are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 141. They express anguished sorrow over the harm of sin, but they are ultimately songs of joyful repentance.  Psalm 6 begins with tear-filled lament but boldly proclaims that God has heard the cry of my weeping (verse 9). There will be swift vindication against my foes. Psalm 51 begins with David’s tearful repentance from his grave sins. It concludes with tender confidence that David will joyfully sing of God’s justice (verse 16) and proclaim his praises (verse 17), and that God will rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Psalm 130 cries out from the depths, but proclaims the abundant redemption freely offered by God.

This is the Christian paradox. Sorrow and joy are not opposites. In fact, the path of Beatitude invites us to discover joy amidst our grieving.

Repentance is not a matter of beating ourselves up until God and others feel sorry for us. Rather, repentance invites us to open ourselves to both experiences: intense sorrow and intense joy. Truthfully facing what we have done and truthfully acknowledging our ruined human condition – that takes courage and many tears. Most of us spend most of our life (like the Pharisees and scribes) hardening our hearts against the full human experience, preferring the shallowness of legal observance and give-so-I-can-get transactions. When we open ourselves up to true repentance, and to the full depths of grief, we discover the great surprise of joy.


Advent is a season of Hope. We allow our hearts to long for the coming of Jesus. We dare to desire more.

The Church’s liturgy invites us to listen attentively to the prophets, who burned with an eagerness for the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah imagines what things will be like: swords turned into plowshares, a definitive end to war; the desert blooming with flowers; the blind restored to sight, the deaf restored to hearing, the lame leaping with joy; the lion and the lamb living in harmony; the stump of Jesse blossoming and bearing fruit.

In one sense, the longed-for Messiah has come. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Humans and angels alike who participated in the events of that night were bursting with joy and praise.

In another sense, nothing has changed. There seems to be just as much greed, devouring, exploitation, hatred, contempt, abuse, and violence as in Jesus’ day.

In one sense, Jesus has definitively won the victory. When we get to Holy Week, we will remember his words on the Cross: “It is finished.” At Easter we will celebrate him as the lamb once slain who lives, never to die again.

In another painfully real sense, as you and I embrace everyday life in these challenging times, that victory feels anything but assured.

Many aspects of life went “back to normal” nine months ago. But no amount of socializing or traveling, getting or spending has restored joy or peace. Many of us feel depleted, burnt out, or discouraged. We struggle to remember how long ago things happened, and feel a great uncertainty and dis-ease about where things are headed. Even when we keep returning to our holy desires, we can sometimes feel stuck.

I have a word for this dis-ease: being HopeSick. I’m sure I’m not the first one to think it up. I sometimes feel sick amidst my hoping. And yes, like the prophet Jeremiah, sometimes I cry out to the Lord because I am feeling sick of hoping.

I was expressing this felt heartache to a wise mentor, who suggested the metaphor of sickness – not as a moral failing (any more than Covid or the flu is a character flaw) but as a point of powerlessness. We all know those moments of a disease in which we feel utterly overwhelmed. We can’t change anything; we can’t alleviate anything. Even if we know it will eventually pass, we have no way of knowing how long, and we notice no signs of relenting.

There are also aches or illnesses that will never go away in this life. It doesn’t always get better. Many of you live with debilitating pain day after day. You alternate days of surrender, serenity, and joy with days of discouragement. Darkness is only an absence of light, but it can feel very, very real.

Advent is a time of Hope amidst the darkness. As the warmth and light of the sun flee us, we still dare to Hope. In a time of sickness and powerlessness, we endure in Hope.

Advent is a time of “already but not yet.” The Kingdom of God has indeed broken into this world, in the person of Jesus Christ. He promises to come again with the fullness of justice – and he will. Meanwhile, we watch and wait. And wait. And wait.

If our hearts are anything like the hearts of the prophets (or like the souls of the just in the Book of Revelation), we eventually cry out in agony, HOW LONG??

What joy to be like Simeon or Anna in the temple, keeping prayerful watch for decades and finally, at long last, beholding the object of their desire, embracing and delighting in the newborn Jesus. Simeon was totally ready to die amidst his overflowing satisfaction and joy.

Luke narrates that exhilarating moment of fulfillment. He only hints at the many moments of heartache that preceded. I wonder – how often, through all those decades of waiting, did Simeon or Anna feel HopeSick?

We know that Jeremiah and Job felt HopeSick, as did Abraham and Moses. They often cried out to God in exasperation, feeling as though they couldn’t possibly go on. God met them in their longing, and they went on.

Hope can be precarious because it so often includes a felt powerlessness, and even moments of darkness. For many of us, there have been many such moments – even from a young age. The prince of darkness loves to draw near in those moments, whispering his lies about who we are, who others are, and who God is. See, this is what always happens… Nothing will ever change… What’s the point?… You can’t count on others; just take care of yourself…

Those of us who have known intense moments of trauma experienced an intense powerless in those moments. Whether the “moment” was 15 minutes or 15 years, it didn’t matter. We lost our sense of time.

And our bodies remember. Present day moments of timeless trauma, of feeling stuck in HopeSickness, can bring back old feelings and old lies – and with them old behaviors! And then we can really feel stuck. Or we can begin shaming ourselves or feeling shamed by the well-intended advice of others.

Jesus did not shame the blind, the deaf, or the mute. Nor did he shame those who were sick in their sins. He bore our infirmities and connected with us amidst our anguish.

Most of the advice given to the HopeSick, even when it is totally true, is a way of spiritually bypassing the agony of Hope. But to lose our longing is to settle for less than God is promising! The prophets are those who refuse to let go of their longing – even when they feel sick or stuck.

It is, however, vitally important to stay connected with Jesus as we abide in Hope. It may be necessary to call on Jesus and tell the evil spirits where they can go. We can renounce their lies and proclaim our trust in the promises of Jesus. AND we can cry out to God, asking him “How Long?”. He always answers, though often not in the ways we imagine or expect. Sometimes silence is the best answer. It doesn’t mean he’s ignoring us. When we are in the throes of an illness, we need presence more than words. We need to not be abandoned.

Advent is a season of presence. Advent is a season of renewed Hope.

The Lost Sheep

I love Luke 15. I cannot think of another chapter of the Bible that so encapsulates the Good News of God’s eternal kindness, his unchanging mercy, his covenantal love.

Jesus is questioned when he seems to prefer spending time with sinners rather than with the rule followers. In answer, he offers three different parables, each of which paints a picture of our shared and fallen human condition and God’s response: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons.  We tend to call the last one “the prodigal son,” but it is really a story about a merciful father and his deep desire for relationship with both of his sinful sons – the younger one who goes far away and squanders everything and the other one who “loyally” stays home, but with such a self-righteous and hardened heart.

I have already written about the lost coin. Today I would like to consider the story of the lost sheep. Several details invite deeper curiosity.

First of all, there is the shocking description of leaving ninety-nine sheep behind for the sake of finding one who is lost. It makes sense at first. Every Wisconsin farmer I’ve ever known shows amazing concern if one of their livestock are lost or in danger – both from a perspective of caring for God’s creatures as well as the serious financial consequences even with the loss of one animal. But how seriously and for how long? Doesn’t there come a point at which it no longer makes sense to leave the ninety-nine behind?

I found a much deeper answer to that question when I was reading Jean Daniélou’s hidden gem The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. He traces the thought of one early Church Father after another, and shows great consistency on the theme of “the ninety-nine” representing the heavenly angels. The eternal Son of God leaves heaven and comes down to earth to seek out and save these strange spiritual beings, the humans, who (so unlike the angels) are also bodily beings who have the capacity to change their minds and repent and be saved.

That is a massive paradigm shift for many of us, who tend to hear about the ninety-nine versus the one and proceeed to imagine ourselves on one side or the other. Rather, Jesus is telling the Pharisees and scribes that they, the tax collectors, and the rest of the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are all on the side of the lost sheep. He makes the same point ten chapters earlier when he proclaims, “I have not come to call the righteous to conversion, but sinners.” If we are not ready to identify ourselves as sinners in need of mercy, we will not be able to receive salvation.

Another question we might be curious about is why the sheep got lost in the first place? The normal instinct of a sheep is to stick with the other sheep and stick with the shepherd. Pulling away from the herd feels scary and threatening and goes against normal survival instincts – unless there is an even scarier threat that somehow causes the sheep to seek its own security, only to find itself very far away from the shepherd and the flock, far away from any real salvation.

The biblical stories are clear – we as human beings are under attack by a cunning and fierce enemy who wills maliciously against us and plots for our ruin. John 10 describes how the enemy lies, seduces, steals, and destroys. He loves to torment human nature – especially by getting us to agree with some of his lies in a way that ruptures relationships. The more he can isolate us from God, from each other, and from our truest and deepest self, the freer reign he has to torment us.

This is not to say “the devil made me do it” – nor is that how God sees it. When he seeks out Adam in the garden, he helps Adam to get over his denial and blame-shifting and to confess the truth of what he has done. Together with Adam, you and I can say truthfully that evil chose us and that, at some point, we started choosing it back. Without dismissing culpability, we can have the deepest compassion both on ourselves and on other sinners, knowing that it all started with a malicious attack of a very evil spirit. What a contrast from the self-righteous shaming of the scribes and Pharisees, who were eager to look down on “sinners.”  And let’s face it, during these tense times, most of us don’t have to try very hard to find ourselves judging or shaming or belittling “those people” who think differently than we do or who live differently than we do. Nor is that a “conservative” or “liberal” trend; it’s a human trend that runs through all ideologies.

Another point of curiosity and wonderment is the shepherd’s quest. I was moved to tears the other day reading the description of Asterius of Amasea as I prayed the Office of Readings: “When one of them was separated from the flock and lost its way, that shepherd did not remain with the sheep who kept together at pasture. No, he went off to look for the stray. He crossed many valleys and thickets, he climbed great and towering mountains, he spent much time and labor in wandering through solitary places until at last he found his sheep.” In those moments in which I deeply identify with the lost sheep, passages like this help me feel truly blessed and chosen by God. I matter to him, not because of anything I have done, but because he desires me and wills my salvation.

Then there is the return journey home. In many ways, that is where the truly arduous work begins. The rescue itself is swift. Carrying a sheep back through all that rugged terrain is a different story – especially when the scared and shocked sheep begins doing what scared and shocked sheep are apt to do. I speak of bodily functions. Those of you who are farmers and have carried a lost or wounded animal know what I am talking about! Speaking for myself as a lost sheep that has been rescued and is being brought back to the house of the Father, I must admit that my restless spirit does not make the journey a smooth one. I am not unlike those Israelites who took forty years and much wandering to travel that 500 miles back to the promised land. If it had been a literal and linear journey, that would have meant advancing a whopping 180 feet per day (or 210 feet per day assuming they rested each Sabbath from such a grueling pace). It turns out that, like those Israelites, our journey back to the Father’s house is anything but linear. But it sure is an amazing and wonderful adventure, and it will make for a great story when we get there.

There is one final point of curiosity, namely, the amazing joy with which we are rescued and received back into the Father’s house. In all three stories, Luke 15 explodes with this theme of festive rejoicing. What God wants more than anything else is to embrace us warmly, delight in us deeply, and throw a party for us. There is so much joy in heaven – both in our rescue and in our return.

Nor is it a matter of gutting it out for decades until we finally get out of this misery. Even now, in this life, he desires us to have a taste of that heavenly partying, rest, and delight. He builds Sabbath rest into his covenant with us. Observing the Lord’s Day can become an occasion for deep delight in knowing that we are already at home in our Father’s house.

God has zero interest in judging or condemning. His deep ache is to celebrate in festive delight with his each of his beloved children. To be sure, he always honors our freedom and will never force our rescue, but he certainly will not rest in seeking us out, and in bringing us into his rest, where we will find joy beyond all imagining.

Kind to Self / Kind to Others

Kindness seems scarcer than ever during these days of pandemic and a pending (impending?) general election here in the United States. A little kindness goes a long way at a time in which divisions and contempt are palpable, and almost all of us feel emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

These past few weeks, I have been astounded and grateful at how frequently a simple kind and empathetic gaze into someone’s eyes elicits tears and a deeper sense of peace.

I wish I could say that it’s always easy to practice empathy and kindness. It is often challenging because I am not being kind to myself – or (to put it more precisely) I am not allowing myself to receive the kindness that I need.

God is eternally kind. That is one way to translate the oft-repeated scriptural refrain “his mercy endures forever.” The Hebrew word hesed can be translated as mercy, love, covenantal love, grace, or kindness.

God’s covenantal love abides. He always gazes upon us with kindness, even when we are at our worst. He loves us “even if…” and “even when…” He does not cease his kindness towards us just because we have ceased our faithfulness to him. “If we are unfaithful, he abides in faithfulness, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

That is what covenantal love (hesed) does. It is an unshakable gaze of kindness that truly “sees” into our brokenness and woundedness, receiving us with blessing and delight. Think of the woman caught in adultery. My friend, Fr. Sean Kilcawley, suggests that Jesus stooped down to write on the ground because that is very likely where she was staring. At last, he catches her eye. She receives a gaze that knows her truthfully and communicates the kindness that her heart so deeply desires.

Matthew the tax collector was transformed by a similar gaze of kindness. This is the origin of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s motto, first as a bishop and then as Pope Francis: Miserando atque Eligendo.

As a 17-year-old, Jorge had a transformational moment in Buenos Aires, on the Feast day of Saint Matthew (Sept 21, 1962). The youth unwittingly stumbled into a church, felt drawn to go to Confession, and deeply experienced the healing power of God’s mercy. He felt “seen” and he felt God’s kindness in the depths of his heart.

In his adult years, Bergoglio fell in love with the Caravaggio painting of the call of Matthew, housed in the church of Saint Louis King of France in Rome. As only art can do, the painting utilizes light and shadows to depict Jesus’ gaze, and Matthew’s shock at being truly seen AND received with kindness. His face shows a battle between hope and fear, leading to a moment of decision that he will begin to follow Jesus.

The motto itself is taken from a homily by St. Bede the Venerable, an early medieval monk in England, and one of my very favorite authors. His commentary on Matthew’s Gospel says in 3 words (miserando atque eligendo) what it takes me 12 words in English to translate (see the bold-faced words below):

“Jesus saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: Follow me.  Jesus ‘saw’ Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men.  He saw a tax collector, but by looking upon him with a gaze of mercy, by choosing him, He said to him: Follow me.”

And Matthew followed. His life was never the same after receiving a gaze of kindness from Jesus.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus turns and gazes at Peter with kindness right at the moment of Peter’s deepest betrayal (Luke 22:61). In other stories, this eternal kindness of God is depicted in a more visceral way. Luke describes the Good Samaritan or the Merciful Father (of the prodigal son) being “moved with kindness” at the sight – literally, moved in their guts. Both saw a deeply wounded man; both only wanted to show kindness and care – indeed, even feasting and celebration.

Kindness is a gift. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn God’s kindness, mercy, or love. He freely bestows it upon us, choosing and delighting in us, and  calling us into heavenly festal celebration. Unlike the devil and fallen humans, God has no interest whatsoever in condemning us. He desires all human beings to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). But he will not force us.

My fallen human heart deeply desire this kindness – and is often terrified. One would think that receiving kindness would be one of the easiest things to do – and yet my experience tells us that it can be incredibly hard. In my pride and self-protection, I often resist! I am guessing that you do as well.

In recent years, a deep human truth has dawned upon me. Being hard on myself leads me to be hard on others. Being kind to myself frees me to be kind to others. At times I notice myself taking up old and familiar roles – peevishness, fault-finding, blaming, criticizing, or resenting. In those moments, if I let myself be truly present, if I allow myself to receive the gaze of Jesus, if I welcome the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, I often break down and cry. I see the pride and self-reliance that is there, a shame and a relentless cruelty towards myself – thankfully less and less over the years – but still there.

I have begun to probe this hypothesis in the experiences of others, when they have come to me for spiritual counsel. It has proven true every time! If they are struggling with unkindness towards others, it turns out that their heart is itself desperately craving kindness – and often blocking it out.

I think Vincent de Paul discovered the same truth many years ago. He put it this way: “To pardon an injustice received is to heal the wound in your own heart.” As fallen human beings, we bear woundedness in our heart. The devil is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He led Adam and Eve to disobey God, but what is worse, he convinced them that God would no longer be interested in showing kindness to them. So they ran and hid – as though God were a petty tyrant.

The story of salvation throughout the Bible and throughout human history has been one of God eagerly pursuing us with his kindness and love, and our playing hard-to-get with our hardness of heart.

When we stop fighting, lay down our arms, and allow the eternally kind God to tend to our hearts (often by opening ourselves in trust to other human beings who are his chosen instruments!), we will notice a change. We suddenly have a reservoir of kindness within us. The fruits of the Holy Spirit start showing up.

We cannot give what we don’t have. We cannot love our neighbor or show kindness to our neighbor if we do not allow ourselves to receive love and kindness. To try to do otherwise is the detestable heresy of Pelagianism. It’s time to stop being Pelagians and start being kind.