As in years past, The Light is On For You continues again this Lent. This is a joint project between the Archdiocese of Washington DC and the diocese of Arlington VA assuring Catholics that every Wednesday evening throughout Lent churches in these dioceses are open to welcome people to the sacrament of Reconciliation. At Christ the Redeemer in Sterling VA, leaving the light on also includes an invitation to the Table of our Lord with the celebration of evening Mass.
While Lent is certainly a time of penitential reflection, The Light is On For You was generally conceived as a way to welcome wayward Catholics back to church, back to their home. This image is a bit like the story about the Little Match Girl, who stands outside in the cold looking into a home where a bright fire is lit. She keeps herself warm by lighting matches, but eventually she runs out of matches and actually succumbs to the cold.
Wouldn't it be much better to be welcomed into the home? What a strange way to welcome Catholics back to the church when the baggage that they may carry might have come from encounters in the confessional or their own matters of the wages of sin and guilt.
When celebrated properly, the sacrament of Reconciliation is just that—a reconciling of ourselves to God. It is something worth celebrating. It is also a sacrament of healing. That too is a restorative process worthy of true joy. Unfortunately, just as our catholic foreheads are marked on Ash Wednesday, there is a pall around this sacrament that often leaves the penitent in a state of unresolved unworthiness, like a devotee personally brought to tears during repetitious Stations of the Cross, but never allowing the joy of Easter to not only have its day, but shine forth to wipe out sin and fear.
We are instructed during Lent to “Turn away from sin” and certainly the confessional is a place where this can be done. But we are also called to “remain faithful to the Gospel” and more importantly to give witness to how the Living God has remained faithful to us. Square this image with that of light in the sacrament of reconciliation. In days gone by, reconciliation was often celebrated only in the confessional "box". The light was on only when the priest was by himself. When a pentinent entered the confessional, the light was turned off and both priest and penitent were left in the dark.
Nowadays, with the renewals of Vatican II, all manner of light has been shined upon this sacramental practice. Parishes like Christ the Redeemer, offer communal Reconciliation services in addition to their regular Saturday individual confessions. Communal Services, held at Christ the Redeemer during the Advent and Lenten season, allow for a public celebration of the Liturgy of the Word so that the faith community can gather, share the stories of God's love and forgiveness, celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, and be sent with a blessing and absolution back into the world.
Even if the sacrament is not celebrated in such a public way, the sacramental practice today allows for face to face confession alongside the anonymous confession behind the veil that many older Catholics may remember. While it is up to the individual to decide the manner in which to proceed, Christ the Redeemer emphasizes the overpowering and embracing love of God over the allure of our guilt and the weight of penance. Darkness and veils say something about what we may think of ourselves as penitents, but the Rite calls for people to meet, healing words of the Lord to be shared, and peace and forgiveness to be given out.
Even more to the point, the Rite itself is modeled on the Order of the Mass even though many might consider Reconciliation a prerequisite to celebrating Communion. We need to be converted, especially during this Lenten season of “Turning away from sin” and “Returning to God.”
Leaving the light on is an image that resonates with this age of wandering Catholics. The light is like a beacon beckoning its members home, like tweens running out of their allowance, college kids returning with their laundry, or the highs and lows of a family reunion. Biblically, thoughts turn to the story of the so called Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 15, verses 11-32) to be read this weekened for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Cycle C).
In one version of the story, it is not the light that the returning son sees after he has spent all his inheritance, is reduced to feeding pigs, and decides to return home. Instead, it is the ever loving father who sees him from a distance and runs out to meet him. While the son goes through his rehearsed "I'm sorry speech" (like many a penitent), the father proceeds to call out his servants to kill the fatted calf and throw a festive banquet because the lost has been found and the dead has come back to life.
It is fitting then that at places like Christ the Redeemer, "the Light is on for YOU" because the Eucharistic banquet is set. Reconciliation is offered, but it is also done with an invitation to the Mass in which we ask “Lord have mercy”, “forgive us as we forgive others”, and proclaim “You take away the sins of the world”, “say the word and I shall be healed.” This is what the Little Match Girl and the wandering Catholic need: the warm embrace of the Word of God and an invitation to a place at the Table.