|23 - Sunday of the Prodigal, Feb 24, 2019|
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1 Corinthians 6:12-20
We’re breaking camp. We’re about to set out on the Lenten Exodus, the “inner” Exodus of the Gospel. We should be making our final arrangements, both physically and mentally, before we leave the Egypt of this worldly life in order to renew our baptism by taking up the cross of the Lenten Fast and descending into the wilderness of our soul, into the tomb of our heart as into the Jordan, into the mystical reality of Great and Holy Week and of the Savior Christ’s Holy Pascha.
We are setting out on a mystical Path; mystical because it is the real, interior Path. This is the Path the LORD led us to on Theophany, when He bore all of creation down into the stream, down to the “better and changeless Path that ascends to God.” You see that this mystical Path corresponds to—because it is the Path of the Prodigal in this morning’s Gospel from where he was in the Egypt of the pig sty to his Father’s House.
The Church makes clear, through the prayers, for example, of the Vigil for this Sunday, that we are the prodigal. I very much appreciate the words of Fr Stephen Kostoff: “If we have no self-awareness of being lost in a ‘far country;’ if we are not hungry for ‘something other than the ‘good life’ as conceived by a world totally devoid of God; if we fail to see the need to repent and offer our lives back to God in humility and repentance; if we have no real passion for a life committed to Christ; if that is our current spiritual condition, then we certainly have no need for Great Lent.” (Feb 22, 2019) If I may add: we have no need for the Orthodox Church; for, this Path of repentance is what the Orthodox Faith is all about. Walking this Path is what true Christian faith is.
In the same spirit, the same mind of the Church, Archimandrite Aimilianos identifies the feeling of being an exile in a far-away place, estranged from God by a wall of hostility, an inner “mystical” wall formed by my self-love (Isaiah the Solitary, Philokalia 1:24), my friendship with the world that makes me an enemy of God (Jas 4:4), as the first condition for beginning the spiritual life in Christ. Without that condition, I think it fair to say that we stand with this morning’s elder brother, with the Pharisee of last Sunday, with the goats of next Sunday.
This morning, then, let’s focus on this moment when the Prodigal sets out on this path that would take him to his father’s house.
Where, precisely, then, should we say this Path, taken by the Prodigal from where he was in the pig sty to his father’s house, begins? What does the text say? Does it begin in the pig sty; or, does it begin deep in the prodigal’s soul? For, it wasn’t until he came to himself, so it says, that he resolved to leave the pig sty and return to his father’s house.
What did he see when he came to himself? Did he not see what he had become, a hungry, destitute swineherd, against what he was: a son of his father? If I may: he was born as a gold nugget; he had become no better than “poop”.
And, how had he become such? I find that the Greek, again, draws a much more colorful picture. This younger son, following the Greek closely, says to his father: “Give to me the portion of [your] essence [your possessions] that falls to me.” So, the father, it says, distributed to his two sons, their bios, which is the Greek word for biological life, this life, the life of this world that is of limited duration, that ends with death.
The picture drawn here takes me to our epistle this morning: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit that is in you? You have your body from God. You are not your own.” (1 Cor 6:19)
Theologically, what might be the divine essence or the Heavenly Father’s “goods” given to His sons, to His children, to us? I would suggest it is the divine Image, which the holy fathers of the Church say consists chiefly in the power of self-determination, or freedom of the will, and the capacity to receive God in order to become one with Him, to become gods not outside of God but in God so that it is no longer we who live but God who lives in us, making us partakers of the divine nature, possessors, in union with God, of the immeasurable wealth of the riches of God in eternal joy and thanksgiving.
This is why we are not our own. We did not create ourselves. God created us. He created us to be His Temple; or, to use another biblical image, to be His Bride. Nothing that we have is our own, including our life in this world. It has all been given us from above, from Heaven.
This, then, reveals to us the meaning of our life in this world: it is to take the “talent” of our free will, our power of self-determination, and work it to bring ourselves, voluntarily, into subjection to God. Why? Let’s answer from our epistle readings this morning: so that the light of the knowledge of the glory of Jesus Christ may shine in our hearts in the face of Jesus Christ, in the ineffable sweetness of His presence, so that the power of the life that we live is not of us but of God—that we may become gods, sons of God, partakers of the divine nature, and that through us, all of creation might be raised into the light of God and become a living Temple of God.
This is what we see in that moment when we truly come to ourselves in the Church! And even if we do not truly come to ourselves, if for whatever reason we are not able to come to ourselves, the Church shows it to us anyway in the iconology of her prayers, her doctrines, her liturgical and sacramental worship. When we hear it, we should feel stirring deep within us a deep remembrance of something that feels absolutely familiar even as we have forgotten it surrounded as we are by the pig sty. We see the divine beauty and goodness that is the very “essence” of our being, the divine nobility that is innate to us, not because it is ours but because we have it from God who, as our Creator, is our Father such that we are “kin” to God (Lk 3:38), created in His Image, created in His Son Jesus Christ, created in His likeness, with the natural, innate capacity to receive God Himself and to become gods, partakers of the divine nature. In this vision, we see, we know immediately, that what we have become is not who we are. We have become alienated from our true selves precisely because we have forgotten God, we have lived for ourselves, we have not redeemed the time of this life, we have not used our time wisely, we have not worked the talent of our free will to give ourselves voluntarily to repentance, voluntarily to deny our will, working to put to death what’s earthly in us—namely, our friendship with the world and our enmity with God—that we may lose our life, our bios, for the sake of Christ and be found in His Tomb as in the Fountain of our eternal Life, zoe, in God. We have given ourselves to the life of the body in sexual immorality of all kinds, and so we have in effect buried the talent that was given to us in the ground, because that’s where the biological life of the body, the life of sexual immorality, finds its final end.
So, let us note, then, what the prodigal did when he came to himself, when he remembered who he really was. He arose, it says, and he went to his father’s house. I believe it true to say that when he came to himself he came to the LORD Jesus Christ; not only because Christ is the Image of God in whom we are made, but also because we hear in the Lenten Triodion, “As the Prodigal Son, I come to Thee, O LORD!” (p. 113) But more than that, Christ Himself is the Path (Jn 14:6) by whom alone we come to the Father.
I have said that we begin Great Lent at the LORD’s Tomb. Pay attention to the Church’s daily lectionary, and you will see that this is so. But, St Luke tells us that when they laid God’s Body in the Tomb on Great and Holy Friday, the Light of the Sabbath was beginning to dawn (Lk 23:54), the Light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, the Light of the New Creation. Note that the divine Light of God is shining from out of the darkness, both outside and in, of the LORD’s Tomb, God’s Sabbath Rest. It is the same Light that God has made to shine in our hearts, deep within us, where we come upon the Path which is Christ Himself that ascends to God.
We’re breaking camp. We’re getting ready to set out on the Lenten Exodus to the tomb of our heart in the joy of the glory of the Light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection! Amen!