Plane travel isn't fun. The more I have to make use of the airplane, the less I like it. Occasionally, though, I have unusual encounters with people that add something interesting to the flight. Like the other evening, for instance. In the boarding process I took my aisle seat. Shortly thereafter a woman came down the centre of the plane and indicated that hers was the seat next to mine, so I got up to let her in. When she noticed my clerical shirt, she slouched her shoulders in a gesture of frustration, and gave an audible "Ugh!" When she saw my surprised expression, she explained, "I was just short tempered with the agent at the gate. Now that I see you I know I'm going to hell for sure!" Gosh. I really hadn't thought my face has a particularly menacing demeanour, certainly not enough to instill fear of eternal damnation! Guess I'll have to work on my charm.
Instructive for us is the woman's acknowledgement of guilt. No rationalization, no diminishing of the act's seriousness. Simply: I did something wrong and I admit it. This is a grace for which we can and should pray during this season of Lent, the grace of being convicted in our hearts of our need to repent, and the capacity to admit it in humility.
Of course, this is what happens in confession. We don't normally propose that it take place on a commercial jet, but in the safe and sacred encounter between priest and penitent in the confessional or reconciliation room. It is a moment of truth. Coming before Christ present and active in the words and absolution of the priest, it could not be otherwise. Speaking our truth as sinners, and hearing the truth of God's limitless mercy brings a liberation and peace beyond understanding.
Limitless mercy. One might even use the word "prodigal". This Sunday we heard the familiar and beloved parable usually called the story of the prodigal son. True enough. The son was heartlessly prodigal in the wasteful and useless spending of his inheritance. Yet, the father, too, was prodigal in his own way. He was positively and heartfully lavish in the love and forgiveness he poured out upon his son. The key to it all was the son's acknowledgement of his guilt, his sorrow and shame at what he had done, and his willingness to admit it without qualification. He had "come to his senses" and turned back to his father.
We know that the image of the father in the parable is used by Jesus to teach us about the love and mercy of our Heavenly Father. It is yet one more invitation from the Lord to return to the embrace of His love. Let's pray for the grace to come to our senses, for the gift of true contrition. May the Holy Spirit awaken us not only to our need for mercy but also to the truth of God's prodigal love awaiting our return.