Superabundance & Holy Year Indulgence

(Deacon Derek Lappe, August 1, 1999)

The readings this Sunday are not just nice stories about Jesus feeding the crowds, or stories of an idyllic dream world where we can eat without paying, and drink without cost. They are a very real invitation by the Church to reflect deeply on the abundance, plenitude and fullness of God's love and mercy for us. Isaiah tells us of people eating and drinking without cost, without paying, and when Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes, he does not do so to make "just enough" but rather, expressing the fullness of God, he makes twelve extra baskets full.

This miracle is a revelation of our Father's love for us. It is good to reflect on this in this year dedicated to the Father in preparation for the Great Jubilee. Three texts from the Scriptures come immediately to mind as we reflect on Our Father's love for us.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16

The Father's love for us is so great that he dares to give that which is most dear to him, that which is closest and most precious: His own Son. This divine condescension is for the world, for us his children, so that we may not "perish" but rather, be reunited to His love.

"While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man -- though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Romans 5:6

St. Paul, commenting on the incarnation makes clear that it was totally unmerited and undeserved. God freely chose to die for us, thus expressing the height of his sacrificial love for us.

The Story of the prodigal son also turns our mind to the Father. We are all very familiar with the story of the son who turns away from the father who loves him, takes half of what he owns and then squanders everything in sinful living. And how when the son finally comes to his senses and returns, the Father does not even wait for him, but runs out to him embracing his son. The father's action in the parable is what Jesus wants us to understand of our own Father in heaven and his constant and ardent burning love for us.

The prodigal son left his father to go and enjoy the world, and in a similar way we too seek to run away from God's presence through our own sins: severing the relationship with the Father and living sinfully in the world. This is really the nature of every sin, it has this two-fold effect of distancing ourselves from God, and living dissolutely in this world. This has been true from the very beginning. In original sin Adam and Eve turned away from God first of all, but they also hurt each other, did lasting damage to their relationship with each other and with creation. This damage in their own relationship is witnessed by the fact that when God questions them, Adam blames "the woman". Sin then is passed along, like a disease which, now that it has infiltrated that connection between man and woman can now continue to spread to their children and to every one around them.

But God did not want this to be, so he sent his Son for the forgiveness of sins and to make humanity right again. This is the gift of Jesus, first of all to reconcile us with our Father, and then loving Him (and He whom he sent), we love each other as he loved us. This can only happen through the forgiveness of sins. This is the gift of Jesus after the Resurrection: Jesus tells the disciples immediately, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." John 20:23

The Church, faithful bearer of Christ, responds to this mandate, this command of Jesus in the sacrament of confession. As we saw two effects of sin, so now there are two effects of confession. The first is to remove the guilt of sin, to repair the damaged relationship with God reconciling us with our Father. To turn to the sacrament of confession is to imitate the prodigal son coming to his senses, and allow our Father to embrace us. To confess fully our sins to the priest acting in persona Christi is allow God to completely remove our sins, so that they are of absolutely no account to him, they simply no longer exist. The second part of sin however, since it is relational, involves others. Sin is a disruption of the order of charity in the Body of Christ, and a disordered attachment to creation. So the Church offers penance to fulfill the demands of justice of God, yes, but mainly, as an aid to repairing our relationships with each other and with creation. So that as sin breaks down relationships with God, so our fasting prayers, and good works repair them.

But, here's the problem. We can never do enough to make up for our sins and failings against God or each other. We are like the disciples with five loaves and two fish in the face of such overwhelming failings. We are the ones who show up with no money to pay to eat and drink. The story is told of St. Philip Neri, when he was hearing confessions one day, a woman came in to confess. And she said "Father bless me, it has been ten years since my last confession. In that time I have gossiped…a lot. I have ruined reputations by my lying…" and on she went explaining how mean she had been. St. Philip heard her out and then asked her to say an Our Father, three Hail Mary's and a Glory be. The woman was somewhat taken aback, and said, "no father, you don't understand, I have gossiped viciously. I have been ruthlessly cruel to others in spreading rumors. I have destroyed people with my words. That is not enough of a penance." St. Philip seemed to be getting the point and said to her, "oh, I see now. What I would like you to do is go to the roof of your house, and there open up a down pillow, and I want you to let the feathers blow out into the wind, throughout the streets of Rome, and when you are done, I want you to go and collect them all, putting them back in the pillow." The woman said, "but, that's impossible." And St. Philip responded, "yes, and so is it impossible to make up for our failings before God." Faced with our own poverty, and using our own resources it is impossible for us to make ourselves just, it is a free gift bestowed by God.

For this reason the Church celebrates the great jubilee, the ancient tradition which offers "abundant remission and pardon of sins, a pardon which is not only more abundant, but complete." The jubilee offers a chance to completely and totally renew our lives, and to reconcile ourselves to our Father in heaven. This year of preparation has been especially dedicated to the sacrament of Confession, to turning back to God.

But as the Holy Father has written: "reconciliation with God does not mean that there are no enduring consequences of sin from which we must be purified. It is precisely in this context that the indulgence becomes important, since it is an expression of the total gift of the mercy of God. With the indulgence, the repentant sinner receives a remission of the temporal punishment due for the sins already forgiven in regard to the damage sin does."

This is the fullness and plenitude of God's mercy that we are reflecting on today. By offering this indulgence, which surpasses human justice and equality the church shows that her origin and the source of her life is God. Many people when they hear the word "indulgence" probably think of Martin Luther, or the "dark ages", or had considered this Catholic practice as deadweight which had been cast of the barque of Peter after the Second Vatican Council. In fact it is not just abuses of indulgences which are the cause of scandal for many protestants, but their existence in the first place. We cannot do a complete history and defense of the "indulgence" here. But we can say that what the indulgence is: the Jubilee indulgence is an opportunity to do works of charity, penance and self-sacrifice, to place ourselves ever more deeply into the communion of saints, to draw close to the fount of mercy, on the Cross and begin completely anew. In this sense the Jubilee indulgence smoothes the way for anyone who wants to rekindle his love for God. It is possible to "burn away sin" and leave the past behind. It is possible to set out again for a new season of grace which prepares and anticipates the final liberation. The twelve extra baskets!

Many people say: "If I could just start over, do it all over again." You can. The Church, ever responsive to the needs of her children, opens the treasury of graces, that this coming year might be a time of rebirth, renewal and conversion to Jesus. This is the good news of the jubilee.

The indulgence can be attained, beginning this Christmas, by going on pilgrimage to the Holy city of Rome or Jerusalem and praying at the holy sites. But it can also be attained by going to confession, attending Mass and visiting those in need or difficulty. By abstaining from smoking or alcohol and giving the money to the poor, by working to benefit their community in some way.

What can keep us away or prevent us from drawing closer to Christ the fount of love and mercy, the fullness of Our Father's love for us. St. Paul tells us today: nothing. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Picture of Deacon Derek with Fr. Gallagher