I guess we humans aren't really all that complicated.
A parishioner once passed to me the results of a survey that asked people what they most liked to hear said to them with sincerity.
In first place: “I love you.” In second place: “You are forgiven.” In third place (are you ready for this?): “Supper is ready.” Those are affirming words for everyone, and a convincing case can be made that those words sum up the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, our Catholic faith reminds us that Jesus speaks those words to you at every Mass: I love you … You are forgiven … Supper is ready. Moreover, he says those words to you with absolute sincerity.
Let’s consider those affirmations one at a time.
I love you.
Years ago in the seminary, I cornered my Old Testament professor in the hallway after a class. I asked Sulpician Father Mike Barré: “What is the one thing that I should walk away with when studying the Old Testament?” Without missing a beat, Father Mike looked at me and said simply: “The unconditional love of God.”
Also, we find the most important yet simple definition of God tucked in toward the end of the New Testament in the short First Letter of John. 1 John 4:8 defines God using only three words: “God is love.” St. John follows those words with a reflection about God’s love and the Christian life. Then, as if for added emphasis, John repeats them in 4:16.
We really cannot find a better definition or understanding of God than those three words: “God is love.” Many a wise person has said that everything else we might say about God is merely a commentary on those three words.
The starting point for the spiritual life is not how much you love God (although that is important). Your starting point should always be how much God loves you. In other words, in the Scriptures we proclaim on Sundays, Jesus (who is God) says: I love you.
Also, in your day-to-day spiritual life, know that the Bible you read, from its beginning to its end, is a continuous love story, with God telling you: I love you.
You are forgiven.
Jesus calls you to express that same love to other people. Recall that when a Scripture scholar asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies that we are to love God with our entire being and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). Everything else, he says, depends on those two commandments. Everything.
Although the Bible is a continuous love story, people do not love God or their neighbors very well in return. St. Paul wrote that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And yet, God never stops saying to us, “I love you.”
Jesus tells us a parable to make this point clear. In Luke 15:11-32, a prodigal son turns his back on his father, squanders his inheritance, and then returns home to beg his father to accept him back. The father never turns his back on the son and never takes his eye off the point on the horizon where his son had disappeared.
When his son reappears, the father makes an absolute fool of himself. He runs to his son, throws his arms around him, kisses him, and then throws a welcome-home feast of unrestrained love and joy. In the same way, God offers you unconditional love by throwing the arms of forgiveness around you, although you do nothing to deserve it. You simply turn toward God, accept it as grace, and allow it to transform you.
Pope Francis spoke of God’s forgiveness shortly after being chosen as pope. He said: “God never gets tired of forgiving us; it’s we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.”
We begin Mass by calling to mind that we sin, that we fall short of loving God and neighbor as the Gospel calls for. This is not a matter of some infamous Catholic guilt. Not at all. Instead, it is a moment of clear truth-telling, a reminder that we enter the wonder of God’s love with lives that are broken because we do not love as we are called to love.
Pope Francis, in his first interview as pope, spoke to this truth. The first question asked referred to his birth name: Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio? Francis paused a moment, then answered simply: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech. I am a sinner.” Again, this is not a matter of Catholic guilt, but of clear truth-telling.
The Mass acknowledges two realities: God is love, and everyone is a sinner. As with the prodigal son, so it is with you: for whatever you have done, for wherever you have been, for whatever you have said, Jesus says to you: You are forgiven.
Supper is ready.
Early in St. Luke’s telling of the Gospel, in the story of Jesus’ birth we know all so well, we join shepherds in finding Jesus lying in a manger, which is a feeding trough. Thus, the Gospel tells us that, at Christmas and every day of our lives, we go to Jesus to be fed. Throughout the Gospel, people go to Jesus knowing that he would feed them. Even today, when you gather in the sacred space of your church, know that Jesus feeds you with his words proclaimed from Scriptures. Then, Jesus feeds you with bread that is blessed, broken, and given to you.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus has so many meals with people that some folks say you can eat your way through the Gospels. He meets with broken and hurt people, he meets with public sinners, and he feeds them. Then, St. Luke’s telling of the Gospel ends with the Mass. Check it out at Luke 24:13-35.
Two disciples are broken with grief and walking away from where Jesus was crucified. They do not realize that the Risen Jesus is with them. However, the Risen Jesus helps them understand the Scriptures. Then, with bread that is blessed, broken, and given to them, they realize they are fed by the Risen Jesus, realize he has been with them all along, and then tell this Gospel message to others who are broken with grief.
That sounds a lot like the Mass, because it is the Mass. Jesus feeds you again and again when you gather with others to celebrate the Mass. Jesus says to you: Supper is ready.
Jesus’ message remains the same: I love you. You are forgiven. Jesus even tells you: Supper is ready.
Words said with sincerity
I remember what Father Mike Barre said to me because it is so true: the most important takeaway from the Scriptures is that God loves you without condition. From beginning to end, the Bible is a continuous love story about God always pursuing a relationship with you.
At Mass, when you listen with your heart, be it when the word of God is read or in the prayers throughout the Mass (especially the prayer over bread and wine at the altar), God has a message for you that is absolutely sincere.
As at Mass, so for the other six days of the week, I pray you can hear Jesus saying: I love you. You are forgiven. Supper is ready.