The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at Mass for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Fifteenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001, at the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More in Arlington.
How do you and I picture God? What is our image of God? This is a very basic and crucial question. Why? Because the way we picture God - our image of Him - very much determines how we relate to Him, and to one another.
There are all kinds of ways people image God. Where do we find the correct images? In the Bible because the Bible is the recording of how God reveals Himself, and especially in the Gospels, because Jesus, the Son of God made flesh, came precisely to reveal in ways we can understand, visible ways, the invisible God.
Today's scriptures, especially the Gospel, are clear examples. Jesus reveals to us who God is: God is the Searching God; He goes looking for the lost and separated. He searches because He loves us. This love is the revelation of His mercy as well and, as Pope Francis reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy” (cf. “Misericordiae Vultus,” no. 1).
By using three stories or parables, Jesus describes God. God is like: the shepherd searching for one lost sheep, though ninety-nine are left; the woman searching for one lost coin, though she has nine others; the father searching for his rebellious, lost son, who ran away.
Yes, this is who God is: He goes searching for us when we are lost, separated, alienated. When He finds us, He rejoices and carries us home, and He rejoices and celebrates our return. The God who searches: is that your image of God, is that mine?
Do we realize how much we are loved by God? So much that when we say “no” to Him and that is what sin is; when we insist on doing things “my way” instead of “Your Way”; when we choose not to obey His teachings given to us through the Church; when we leave home and wander; He does not give up on us. He keeps searching for us; He keeps the door open. In other words, we can accept God's love or we can reject God's love, but we can never undo God's love! Yes, He is full of mercy and rich in compassion!
The implications for us are enormous! Let us briefly reflect on two of these. First, do we acknowledge - “own” - our need for God's forgiveness and mercy? Do we acknowledge that we are like the lost sheep, the lost coin, the run-away son? Do we own the fact that we do sin? Such acknowledgement should not cause us to be depressed; it should alert us to our weakened human nature and our need for God's transforming grace within us. If we deny our sinfulness, we build walls through which God's love cannot penetrate because we won't let it. But if we acknowledge our sinfulness, our need for forgiveness, we allow God who is already searching for us to find us, to carry us home, to give us new life! We allow His mercy to heal us, and to save us!
What a different view we can now have of the Sacrament of Penance - “confession.” It is the reliving of these three stories or parables; it is experiencing the God who searches for us, finding us and welcoming us home; it is the celebration of God's mercy in a very unique and concrete way, His Divine Mercy!
Secondly, since we are each created in God's image and likeness, and re-created through Baptism to resemble His Son Jesus Christ, Who is, I repeat, “The face of the Father's mercy,” then, are we not to be like the Lord Jesus, and therefore, like God our Father? Are we not to be reflections of the mercy we have received, the forgiveness given us so abundantly? Are we not to be instruments, vehicles, living channels of God's mercy and forgiveness to others?
Of course, forgiving those who hurt us or our loved ones, is very difficult. On our own, it would be impossible. But, with God's transforming grace, with a willingness to be open to His work within our hearts and on our wills, this would be not only possible, but actual. Of course it may take time: we pray for the grace to be open and willing to forgive; then, we pray for the grace to actually forgive. Forgiveness is not pretending that something hurtful or evil did not occur; actually, forgiveness acknowledges that such a hurt or evil happened. Forgiveness is going beyond the desire for revenge, or getting even. It is the desire that those who do such hurtful or evil things will come to a change of heart and turn back to God to seek His forgiveness. Doing this means imitating Jesus Christ, Who on the Cross, pleaded with His Father to forgive the very ones who were murdering Him, the One Who was totally innocent and without any sin!
Truthfully, we often are like the older brother in the third parable which Jesus tells us today. This older brother was angry at his younger brother for the hurt he had caused to their father - and rightly so. Then, he was resentful because his father welcomed this younger brother home with rejoicing and feasting when, in his estimation, this brother should have been made to pay back what he had wasted, to be punished in some way - not to be given a “welcome home” party when he, the older brother had stayed home, obeyed his father totally and never had been given by his father a young goat to celebrate with his friends. He was resentful and unforgiving! Notice how the father searched for him too, as he has searched for the younger son. He went out to greet each one. And he pleaded with his older son to forgive, because his lost brother had been found.
God the Father in Jesus Christ is reaching out to us, searching for us in our times of holding grudges and being unwilling to forgive. Yes, there is accountability, but forgiveness transcends that without denying that. Are we like that older brother? If so, let the Father in Jesus Christ find us and lead us back home - to the home of forgiveness!
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on our country: at the World Trade Center, so close to us at the Pentagon, and in the plane crash over Pennsylvania. Those of us who were alive then will never forget that atrocity nor the range of emotions we experienced and may still experience. As we observe this anniversary, surely we lift up in prayer all the innocent victims who lost their lives: those employed at the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon, those on the three planes, and the first responders. We pray too for their families and friends who still mourn their passing. We pray for those who were injured in any way and still experience the effects of their injuries, whether physical or, in many cases emotional and psychological. We pray for those who suffer today from acts of terrorism or violence, whether nearby or far away.
And, we need to pray for the forgiveness of the perpetrators. This is not to say that they should not be held accountable or excused. They should be held accountable and not excused. But we pray for the conversion of their hearts because in the end only such a conversion will bring about a true end to their inhuman and atrocious actions. Doing this will not be easy. But, are we not to be like God Our Father, the Father of Mercies, Who reveals His Mercy in Jesus Christ, Whose mercy has forgiven us, forgives us now and will forgive us when we let ourselves be found by the God of Mercy, the God Who searches with endless love for us? Are we not to pass on the Mercy, the forgiveness He gives us? Oh, pray for the grace to be forgiven by God and, in turn, to forgive others - any and all!