|22 Prodigal Son - February 4, 2007|
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
In the theological vision of the Church, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is none righteous, no not one, save the Lord Jesus Christ. In the prayers of St Basil’s Liturgy we stand humbly before God because we have done nothing good on the earth. There is no room for boasting; no reason to stand with the Pharisee and trumpet our virtues before God. We waste precious time when we concern ourselves with the speck in our brother’s eye. We ought to be focusing on the beam in our own.
In this vision, every one of us is the Prodigal Son. This morning, I want to guide us in a meditation on how we can come to our senses with the Prodigal Son and make our way back to our heavenly Father. Since we are presently in the feast of the Meeting of Our Lord, we can look to this feast as the starting point for our meditation. My attention is drawn to St Simeon’s words to the Theotokos: “A sword will pierce your own soul also, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” What is this sword?
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord says: “Think not that I came to send peace on the earth, I came not to bring peace but a sword.” Now, it is reported in all the Gospels that when they came to seize Jesus in the Garden, and Peter took up his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, that Jesus rebuked him and told him to put his sword back in its sheath. The sword Jesus brings to the earth, then, is not the earthly sword of armed conflict. So, what is it?
St Paul speaks of this sword in his letter to the Hebrews. “The word of God,” he says, “is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and [is] a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” The sword, then, is the word of God, the word that King David experienced as a lamp to his feet and a light to his path; and that King Solomon describes as a lamp and a light that gives reproof and instructions that illumine the way of life. The word of God is a sword and a light because, as the light pierces the darkness, so it pierces to the inmost heart: as St Paul says, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart.
But this sword of divine light is not simply the word of God as Holy Scripture or as words of God. Isaiah and Micah prophesy that the law of the Lord shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Isaiah speaks of Zion and Jerusalem as the mother of the Virgin. The word of the Lord of which Isaiah and Micah speak is therefore the very Person of Jesus Christ; for, he is the Word of God who has become flesh and dwelt among us. The words of the Law, the words of Holy Scripture, are but so many sparkles of light emanating from the Word of God who is the Light of the world, who illumines all who come into the world. He is the Light that shines out of the darkness, which the darkness cannot comprehend, the Light that shines in the heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. Christ, then, born of the Virgin, the daughter of Zion, is the sword that pierces the heart. Or rather, we should say that his Holy Spirit is the sword; for, Christ says that he comes not as the sword but to bring a sword. And Christ brings the Holy Spirit to give to all who receive him. By the Spirit through the Son the Father searches the heart and tries the reins (the seat of the heart), to give to every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings – so we can interpret the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
This may explain St Simeon’s words to the Theotokos: “A sword will pierce your own soul, also.” It must be that when St Simeon takes the child Jesus into his arms, he feels his own soul pierced by the sword of the Father’s Holy Spirit brought to him by this Word of God whom he holds in his arms and near his heart, who inspires him to say: Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared for all peoples; a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And so he says to the Blessed Virgin, the daughter of Zion, “A sword – the Word of God – will pierce your own soul, too, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There is a depth of theological meaning in these words that I cannot see into. But I can see far enough to see that the words of the Church – the words of her Holy Scripture, her prayers, her dogmas, her holy icons (words in pictures) – are the embodiment of Christ, the Word of God, the Light of the world; so that when we read the Holy Scriptures, when we say the prayers of the Church in our common worship and in the rule of prayer given to us by the Church, we are putting the sword of Christ’s Holy Spirit to our tongues and to our ears and to our eyes; and when we say the words of the Church mindfully, with attention and in the mind of the Church, the mind of contrition and of desire to be illumined by God, we are receiving into our heart the Holy Spirit of Christ God who is sharper than any two-edged sword, who pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, to discern the thoughts and intents of our heart.
We read in the Proverbs that we, too, are spirit, and that our spirit is the candle of the Lord that searches all the inward parts of the belly. Our spirit is our secret, true self that knows our secret depths, as St Paul says. Lighting a candle at Church or at home to say our prayers is a symbol of submitting our spirit to the Spirit of God in the mind of the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wickedness in me, and lead me in the way of everlasting.”
When in this mind, our spirit receives the words of the Church into our heart as a candle receives the flame and as the darkness is pierced by the light, this is the moment when we come to our senses with the Prodigal Son. Illumined as a candle by the fiery tongue of the Holy Spirit, we begin to see the thoughts and intentions in the depths of our secret heart. This is the moment of illumination when the light of God pierces the dividing asunder of our soul and spirit and reveals to us the spiritual schizophrenia of which St Paul speaks, that has crippled us in the secret depths of our heart because we have turned away from the Father. St Paul says: “I wish to do the good, but I find the principle of evil present in me. I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body. It wages war against the law of my mind, and makes me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” But this revelation of our bondage to sin comes from the light of the sword of Christ’s Holy Spirit, and so it does not cast St Paul into despair. Neither does it throw the Prodigal into despair. Quite the opposite: it raises him to the heights of humility and he says in the hope of faith the words of the righteous elder Simeon: “I shall rise and go to my Father. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
This is the moment of the soul’s repentance, its turning to the light of God, its resolve to leave the darkness of worldly words and deeds behind and to make its way to the Father. It is a sacred moment of hope and joy. It can be accompanied by deep emotion. But because it is such a sacred moment, it surely attracts the attention of the evil one who rushes to do all he can to subvert the Prodigal’s resolve, and to lead him back to the darkness by whispering to him suggestions that have the appearance of light but which are not of God – for the evil one was in his creation the Angel of Light, Lucifer, and he can appear as an angel of light to deceive even the elect. It is therefore critically important to attend to the instructions of Holy Scripture to learn how we execute this turn of repentance to make our way back to the Father.
The Prodigal Son teaches us by his words. “I shall go to my Father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.’” Here, he expresses the mind of the faithful. It is the mind of St Paul who says: “I am not worthy to be called an apostle, I who am the first of all sinners.” From St John, we read on Thursday last, “If we say we have no sin, we make God a liar, and the truth is not in us. He who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness.” If we have no sense of our own sin, if we do not see how the old man in us, the child of the law of sin, is still active in us, impelling us to bite and devour each other with harsh words, in anger and hatred, bitterness, cynicism, contempt, conceit, disdain for others, and if we feel no remorse for our sin, little if any desire to be delivered of this body of death, we are still in the darkness. If we hate our brother or sister, if we are finding fault, pointing out the speck in the other person’s eye, we are walking in not in the light of God but in the light of Lucifer in the outer darkness.
But isn’t this Christian way of cultivating a vivid sense of our sinfulness a sad and gloomy way to live? The 19th Century Russian Orthodox bishop, Ignatius Brianchaninov witnesses to the universal experience of Christian repentance when he writes in his book, The Arena: “The deepest healing of the soul, producing joy inexpressible, occurs when we turn the eyes of our soul, illumined by the Holy Spirit, away from the sins of our brother to stand before God and to confess to him our own sins.” The contrite sorrow of the Church is not a despairing sorrow but a sweet sorrow. It is pierced through with the sword of the light of Christ’s Cross and it is infused with the joy of forgiveness that heals the schizophrenic fragmentation of our spiritual psyche in the death and resurrection of Christ, until Christ is all in all in us and in the world, and we can say with St Paul: “It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me.”
Practiced according to the way of the Church, then, the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent should produce in us both the sorrow of a broken and contrite heart and the joy inexpressible of God’s forgiveness in the resurrection of Christ. Contrite sorrow leading to joy, joy in contrite sorrow: these are two marks, two of the fiery flames produced from the light of the Holy Spirit, the sword of Christ, the Light of the Father that pierces the darkness and shines in our hearts with the glory of God in the face of the risen Christ, that leads us back to the Father. Let us each one bestir ourselves and come to our senses in the way of the prodigal son. Let the lighting of our candles on this the Feast of the Lord’s Meeting in the Temple be the symbol of our spirit submitting to the Light of Christ as a candle submits to the flame, that Christ God may pierce with the fiery light of his sword all the way to the thoughts and intentions of our secret heart. Let the taking up of the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent be the concrete act by which we take up the Lamp of Christ’s holy commandments in the mind of the Church, in the prayer that Christ himself may come to us as the lamp to our feet and the light unto our path that illumines through its reproof and its instruction the path of life and leads us back to the Father.