23 - Prodigal Son, February 16, 2014

I Corinthians 6:12-20

Luke 15:11-32

Our Mother, the Church, continues to get us ready for the Lenten journey the faithful are about to undertake with this morning’s parable of the Prodigal Son; or, of the lost son. It follows two other parables having to do with something that was lost and then found: the parable of the one lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. The Prodigal Son, then, corresponds to the one lost sheep whom the Shepherd goes looking for, and to the one lost coin for whom the “certain woman” searches her whole house with the help of a lamp until she finds it.

Christ is the Shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, of course. The “certain woman” could very properly be an icon of the Theotokos, the lamp being the fire of the Holy Spirit that radiates from her as the Living Temple and Mother of God. Actually, the woman is identified in our Lenten texts as the Savior (Lenten Triodion, p. 220); but I think we can say that this is the Savior who comes to us through and in His Mother, for it was through her that He came in the flesh looking for us, even as far as descending into hell.

In her liturgical texts for this morning, our Holy Mother, the Church, directs us to call out to the LORD as though we each one are the lost son. That means that we each one are the sheep that has gone astray, having gone our own way, as Isaiah the prophet says, (Isa 53:6).

On this point, here’s something to ponder: at our funeral service, the Church will cry out with the prophet David: “I am a lost sheep; call me, O Savior, and save me! May I find the right way through repentance!” (cf. Ps 119:176) This tells us that the Lenten journey we take every year is the blessed way of repentance that will lead our soul into eternal life on the day of our death, as the Church sings at the funeral service: “Blessed is the way in which thou shalt walk today, my soul!”

From this, Great Lent appears as that time each year when the Church leaves Galilee, as it were, and steps directly onto the road to Jerusalem as onto the way of the Cross. The disciplines of Great Lent – prayer, fasting, confession of sins, acts of mercy – as we are given to understand, again, from the Church’s Lenten texts, are themselves the Cross that Christ commands those to take up who would follow Him. It is by these disciplines, then, that we set out to deny ourselves, to take up the work of decreasing that Christ may increase in us, to lose our lives for the sake of Christ and the Gospel; i.e., to be united to Christ in the likeness of His death to become partakers in His victory over death.

Perhaps this explains why some dread Great Lent, and hardly participate in it at all. They’ve not yet “come to themselves”. They’re not yet ready to confront the fact of their mortality; so they’re not ready to deny themselves and to begin living for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. Or, they may be with the elder son. He corresponds to the Pharisee who hides from death behind the façade of his self-righteousness.

And, perhaps this explains why the “faithful”, even as they may be a bit frightened at the physical discomfort of the Lenten disciplines, feel a certain sacred thrill at the coming of Great Lent. The “faithful” are not those who boast like the Pharisee, or who consider themselves righteous like the elder son in this morning’s parable. The “faithful” Orthodox Christian is he who has come to himself to see that he has joined himself to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life that are of the world that is passing away. In the words of the Canon of St Andrew: he sees that he has “pursued a life in love with material things.” He has “adorned the idol of his flesh with a many-colored coat of shameful thoughts.” (Lenten Triodion, p. 220) The faithful Orthodox Christian is the one who prays like the publican, like the blind man of Jericho, like the Canaanite woman, like the prodigal son: “LORD Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

This prayer of contrition, however, is also a prayer of hope. The hope comes in the realization that, even as one finds oneself living and eating as a pig, one is not a pig. To come to oneself, I think, means that one sees within his soul a much deeper “self” that is holy and sacred in a natural capacity for the eternal. In the words of St Paul in this morning’s epistle, we were made to be a temple of God. Our bodies were meant to be joined to the LORD of heaven and earth and not to prostitutes. We were meant to eat the Living Bread that comes down from heaven, the Fruit of the Tree of Life, not the husks that pigs eat. The sorrow the “faithful” Orthodox Christian feels when he “comes to himself” comes from the realization that he has neglected this inner, spiritual tabernacle of his soul that was fashioned by God,” (Lenten Triodion, p. 220) he has discolored with his love for material things the first beauty of the image in which he was made, the Image of God. As a son of Adam, he is a son of God (Lk 3:38); yet, he has become a slave of a pig-farmer, living and eating as one of the pigs.

In other words, he sees that he is the lost coin, of value because he is stamped with the image of the King. It is in this realization, when we come to ourselves, that the Church finds us, as did the woman who found the lost coin, and gives us the joy of hope as she teaches us to pray: “O my blessed Savior, seek me as once Thou sought the lost coin and find me!” (Lenten Triodion, p. 220)

The joy of this hope is precisely the Cross the Church gives to us in the Lenten ascetic disciplines. The faithful take up these ascetic disciplines as their “weapon of victory”; for by these disciplines, they will put to death the death that has enslaved us from joining ourselves to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.

The faithful, then, do not experience the death of the Cross as their death, but as their purification, their healing, their deliverance, the restoration of that “image of God’s eternity” that they were made in. I think the faithful do not experience the cross as their death because they no longer identify themselves with the world or with the death that the Cross puts to death. Having come to themselves, they see who they really are: sons and daughters of the King, and so they experience the Lenten journey of the Cross as their way back to the Father.

Those who still identify themselves with the material things of the world, and who continue to join themselves to the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life as to their worldly masters, would experience the Cross as their death, because they are identifying themselves with the death that the Cross of Christ puts to death.

This, then, is the lesson we can take with us as we continue our preparations for the Lenten journey now just around the corner: you are more than a body and the carnal desires that go with it. You are spirit, made in the image of God. You were not made to join yourselves to the lusts of the world in order to become one flesh with them. You were made to join yourselves to the LORD, to become one spirit with Him, a temple of the living God in whom the LORD of Glory dwells.

Come to yourself, man! Look into the icons of the Church. They are “mirrors” of your soul. Look into them and see who you are! You were created for immortality, in the image of God’s own eternity. (Wisd 2:23) Turn the ears of your soul inward and hear the call of the Shepherd, the cry of the Theotokos shining the lamp of the Holy Spirit searching for you. And, in the joy of repentance, resolve to take up your Cross. Take up the disciplines of Great Lent, according to your strength and circumstances, and make your way on the path of Great Lent to the tomb of your heart as to the Door that opens onto Paradise. See if the LORD Himself does not come running out to meet you, to raise you up onto His shoulders as a new creation, to create in you a clean heart, to put in you a new and right spirit, and to bring you into the green pastures of His Holy Resurrection. Amen!