"The Lord your God is in your midst . . . He will rejoice over you with gladness . . . He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals" (Zephaniah 3:17).
So I’m reading through Luke 15 and I have an epiphany. A fleeting one, probably – although I hope I can hold onto the excitement that swept over me as I read the three parables in that chapter.
In the first, Jesus used the illustration of a lost sheep to talk about how much the Father loves us. You remember the story. The shepherd left ninety-nine sheep safe in the pasture and set out to search for the one that had strayed. When he found it, he lifted it onto his shoulders and then said something that to me is astonishing: "There is greater celebration in heaven over one sinner who repents than over those who need no repentance."
Celebration. Shouts of joy. Laughter. Dancing. Feasting. That’s what happens among the angels and saints around God’s throne. when even one sinner comes home.
Then the Lord talked of a woman who’d lost her coin. To others, perhaps it would not have been worth making a fuss over, but to her . . . well, she turned her house inside out looking for it. And once again Jesus connected the dots for us: “Come, celebrate with me – for I found my lost coin.”
The call to celebration reaches its climax with the last parable, the one of the lost son – better known as the Prodigal son. I hope you know that story, too. The young man decided living with his father was too inconvenient, his rules archaic and stifling. He wanted to live as he wished, answerable to no one but himself.
So he left. And then the money ran out.
What I like about this story is the young man’s humility and penitent attitude. He didn’t think to go back home and request his rights as a son. Rather, he planned to return and tell his dad, “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired hands.”
That caught my attention: “I am not worthy to be called your son.”
The way the narrative unfolds, it seems his father didn’t even pay attention to what he said. The father was already starting to celebrate. “Bring the fattened calf,” he shouted. “And my best robe, and put it on my son. He was lost, but now is found. He was dead, but is now alive. Come! Let’s celebrate.”
There is a point in the liturgy of the Eucharist when the priest holds aloft the host and the cup and says, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.” Thereupon the congregation responds, “Lord, I am not worth to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
After reading the parables in Luke 15, I compared the penitent worshipper during the Mass to what we ought to be doing during the Eucharistic liturgy -- being in the processes of humbly returning to God with such words as “I am not worthy to receive You.”
And I think the Father – already knowing what we are going to say – is not even paying attention. He’s already started celebrating.
Several months ago, during a nursing school graduation, the students played a 1980s song by “Kool and the Gang” to mark their joyous occasion. I thought of it as the realization of God’s celebration swept over me during my reading of this chapter. I doubt it’s what the angels and saints sing when the Church celebrates Mass (frankly, I’m sure they sing something from Handle’s Messiah), but the song's energy and exuberance quickened something inside me, so I searched the internet for Kool and the Gang’s performance. Click here, and you will be linked to a ‘words and music only’ YouTube video. Click here and you’ll be linked to the video (skip through the advertisement by clicking the appropriate button on your screen when you load the video. You can also enlarge the image by clicking on the four arrows in the lower right corner of the YouTube screen).
Think of it! Almighty God celebrates you. And me.
It should stir in us energy. And exuberance.
Oh, I hope my epiphany of that truth lasts until the next Mass I attend. And beyond.