A little boy went camping with his parents for the first time. The family was at a national park in the mountains, and the boy was fascinated by everything he saw. One morning he went off exploring by himself, and came to an overlook set above a deep mountain valley. Thinking he heard someone, he shouted, “Hello!”, and heard a voice shout back at him, “Hello!” The boy had never heard an echo before, and didn’t understand the idea; he called out, “Who are you?,” only to hear the response “Who are you?” “I asked you first!” the boy insisted, only to hear those exact words repeated back. In frustration and anger, he shouted, “I hate you!,” and the answer came back “I hate you.” Crying, the boy ran back to the family’s campsite, and, in-between sobs, told his mother what had happened. She consoled him, then told him to return to the overlook, and instructed him what to say. The little boy obeyed, and called down into the valley, “Hello,” and the voice responded “Hello.” “I’m sorry,” said the boy, and he heard the words “I’m sorry.” Then the child called out, “I love you,” and received back the reply “I love you” (Gerard Fuller, Stories for All Seasons, p. 58). Despite the beauty of creation, many people find this world to be a cold, hard, impersonal place. Life is difficult or unsatisfying, they don’t care for the people around them, and they doubt God’s existence or His personal love for them. Quite often this unfortunate state of affairs is their own fault—for the attitude we project toward life and the world around us has a way of echoing itself back at us. God our Father always cares for us—but this glorious and amazing truth does us little good unless our hearts are open and responsive to His love.
It’s relatively easy to understand the dynamic within the Second Book of Chronicles (36:14-16, 19-23). The people and the national and religious leaders of Judah were unfaithful to God, disobeying His commandments and ignoring His messengers the prophets—and so the Lord allowed a time of national disaster in which their enemies overcame them. Bad behavior led to bad consequences—a process that seems eminently fair and logical. However, God is not limited by human logic; He much prefers to bless, rather than punish. That’s why after seventy years He raised up a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, to free the Jews from their slavery in Babylon and help them return to Jerusalem and rebuild their holy city. God’s love is always greater than we can expect or deserve; as St. Paul assures us in his Letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10), the Lord is rich in mercy, offering us the gift of saving grace through Christ. Jesus made this same point in the Gospel of John (3:14-21) while talking with Nicodemus, informing him that God sent His Son into the world not to condemn it—as one might reasonably expect—but rather, to offer everyone the chance for salvation. Our Lord explained that He was to be lifted up on the Cross so that all who look upon Him with faith might be saved. Unfortunately, there are many who prefer the darkness of sin instead of the light of grace. God’s merciful love is available to everyone, but the Lord does not force Himself upon us; each one of us must choose whether we’ll open our hearts to Him.
Two pastors who were friends were one day walking down a country lane, and noticed a weather vane mounted on a barn; on top of the weather vane were the words “God is love.” The first pastor remarked, “I appreciate the farmer’s expression of faith, but I think this image is misguided or misleading; weather vanes are changeable, but God’s love is constant.” However, the second pastor disagreed with him, saying, “I think you’re missing the point. What the weather vane says to me is that no matter which way the wind is blowing, God is love” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 171). It is certainly the case that God loves us when we’re holy, but He also loves us when we’re sinful; He loves us when we’re successful in life, but also when we fail; He loves us when we’re happy, but He also loves us when we’re sad. There is never a time or set of circumstances when the Lord doesn’t love us, but there are certainly times when we fail to love Him as we should—times when we allow the winds and storms of life to point us in the wrong direction or throw us off our proper course.
Lent is an opportunity for us to reflect on whether we love God as much as we can and as much as we should, and a time for us to repent of our failures in this regard and resolve to do better with the Lord’s grace. Whenever someone comes into the confessional and says “I don’t know what sins to confess,” I lead the person through a simple examination of conscience, asking questions about each of the Ten Commandments. I always end with the question: “Have you loved anyone, or anything, more than God?” This is the key question: do we try to love God more than anyone or anything else? If not, sin still has a firm grip on us, and we might easily find ourselves being led astray and moving in the wrong direction. If we do put God first, however, we are allowing His grace to be at work powerfully within us, slowly but surely turning us into saints—and that’s precisely why we’re here on earth, and that’s how we follow Jesus into eternal life.
Our earthly lives are like echoes; by choosing the message we proclaim through our words and deeds, we also choose the message we receive back. By the glory of His creation, by the sacrificial death of His Son on the Cross, by the Sacraments and ministry of His Church, by the abundance of His mercy, and by the gentle tugging of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, God is constantly saying to us, “I love you.” By living out our faith today, and every day, let us answer back to God in these same words.