The Writing on the Wall – Lenten Reflection – Week 3
The Writing on the Wall
It was early in June when the school principal suggested that it might be a good idea to organise a “second confession” for the children who had recently made their first communion. She suggested that, this time, we might celebrate the Sacrament “in the box”, to introduce them to that possibility. Before we began, I told them there was no need to worry if they forgot the “Act of Sorrow”, because I had printed it out and stuck it on the wall in the Confessional.
The following Christmas, the class teacher raised the possibility of Confession for Christmas and up they came again. Before we started, I asked the boys and girls if they had any questions for me. One lad, wanting to be reassured, asked me: “Fr. Kevin, will the writing be on the wall?”. In his innocence, he certainly didn’t know the original biblical source of that expression.
The Old Testament Book of Daniel relates to the time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Belshazzar, the King of Babylon, was having a feast for his court when a hand appeared, writing on the wall in a language that nobody understood. One of the exiles, the young prophet Daniel, was reputed to be very wise. He was called to offer an explanation. He read the words on the wall and told the king what they meant. “You have been weighed in the balance and you have been found wanting. Your kingdom will be divided and given to others”. The king went weak at the knees, on hearing this rather uncompromising expression of divine justice.
The good news is that the justice of God is only one side of the story. The Word of God, even in that same Book of Daniel, speaks to us powerfully of God’s mercy and compassion. In Psalm 50, sometimes called the “Miserere”, King David, recognising that he has done wrong, pours out his heart to God: “Have mercy on me God in your kindness; in your compassion blot out my offence”.
Jesus wanted people to understand that his ministry was all about God’s mercy, and he expresses this most powerfully in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a very human story about the breakdown of a relationship. The son, who left home in anger, recognises that he has made a mess of things. He remembers his father and, in that memory, finds the possibility of forgiveness and the courage to come home. To his surprise, he discovers that his father has been waiting for him. He begins to make his apology but, before the words are out of his mouth, his father has welcomed him back with open arms. This is “the writing on the wall” that Jesus has given us by the hand of St Luke.
Most of us find it hard to acknowledge that we have done wrong. It is not the image of ourselves that we like to have, or that we want others to have. Apologising makes us feel vulnerable. At the same time, from our earliest childhood, there is nothing quite like the experience of comfort and peace that comes with being forgiven. Jesus, not surprisingly, had a very good understanding of human nature and this comes across powerfully in his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus who, as the song says, was “a greedy little man”. He was transformed by the compassion of Jesus. There was no attempt on his part to deny his cheating. Nor did Jesus, pretend that it didn’t matter.
It is worth noticing, however, that the forgiveness was already there in the attitude of Jesus, even before Zacchaeus came down out of his tree. I think there are two important lessons to be learnt from this. The first is that the forgiveness of God is never in doubt. The only question is whether we are ready to accept it and to allow ourselves to be transformed by it. The second lesson is that, as Christians, we can be peace makers and agents of reconciliation by extending forgiveness and acceptance to others without humiliating them in the process.
I might end by going back to where I began. Many people have lost the habit of going to Confession. Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that Jesus
established this ministry in the Church, as an expression of the mercy of God who lifts us up when we fall. The writing on the wall is very simple. It reads: “Oh my God, I thank you for loving me. I am sorry for my sins, for not loving others and not loving you. Help me to live like Jesus and not sin again”, or words to that effect. I ask all our priests during this season of Lent to make themselves available generously and to welcome, with the compassion of Christ, everyone who comes.
8th March 2023