“…there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” (Psalm 38:3)
On Holy Wednesday evening in some Orthodox traditions, the service of holy unction is offered. Throughout Lent we were called to repent of our sins, to receive the healing forgiveness of Christ. On Holy Wednesday we experience that forgiveness and healing through the sacramental oil of unction. Confession, Holy Communion and Unction are all Mysteries in which we received healing from Christ. They are all means for us to experience the salvation which Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, made possible for all humanity. All three Mysteries become available to us during Holy Week.
Here is one of the prayers the priests say at the service:
“For you are great and wonderful God: you keep your covenant and your mercy toward those who love you, granting forgiveness of sins through your holy Child, Jesus Christ, who grants us a new birth from sin, who gives light to the blind, who raises up those who are cast down, who loves the righteous and shows mercy to sinners, who leads us out of darkness and the shadow of death, saying to those in chains, ‘Go forth,’ and to those who sit in darkness, ‘Open your eyes.’
You made the light of the knowledge of his countenance to shine in our hearts when for our sake he revealed himself upon earth and dwelt among us. To those who accepted him, he gave the power to become children of God, granting us adoption through the washing of regeneration and removing us from the tyranny of the devil. For it did not please you that we should be cleansed by blood, but by holy oil, so you gave us the image of his cross, that we might become the flock of Christ, a royal priesthood, a holy nation; and you purified us with water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit…
Let this oil, O Lord, become the oil of gladness, the oil of sanctification, a royal robe, an armor of might, the averting of every work of the devil, an unassailable seal, the joy of the heart, and eternal rejoicing. Grant that those who are anointed with this oil of regeneration may be fearsome to their adversaries, and that they may shine with the radiance of your saints, having neither stain nor defect, and that they may attain your everlasting rest and receive the prize of their high calling.” (Paul Meyendorf, The Anointing of the Sick, p. 82)
Throughout Holy Week we encounter our Lord, God and Savior Jesus, the Messiah, who comes seeking us, who heals us, who gives us His Body and Blood for our salvation. Sin is another illness which affects our souls and bodies. In unction we come like so many did in Christ’s own lifetime to be healed by Him of our physical and spiritual infirmities.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” (Romans 16:25-27)
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12) [emphases not in original texts]
In the Pauline corpus of writings, there are numerous references to Christ being God’s mystery hidden from all eternity and which God now reveals in Jesus. The mystery is a revelation about the nature of God – God is Trinity. The mystery is a revelation about God’s own abilities to limit Himself and to enter into His creation in the incarnation. They mystery is about what a human is – capable of being united to divinity, capable of sharing the divine life. All of this we celebrate in the Feast of the Annunciation. One of the hymns from the prefeast of the Annunciation proclaims:
THE MYSTERY HIDDEN FROM ALL ETERNITY,
UNKNOWN EVEN BY THE ANGELS,
IS NOW ENTRUSTED TO THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL.
HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;
HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:
REJOICE, PURE DOVE! REJOICE, ALL HOLY ONE!
MAKE READY BY YOUR WORD TO CONCEIVE THE WORD OF GOD!
The time comes for God to reveal the mystery: His plan for humankind is theosis. It was always God’s plan to share the divine life with humanity. It is given to the Archangel Gabriel to announce this plan of salvation of God entering into His own creation: God becomes that which is “not God”! The Archangel comes from the throne of heaven to a backwater village, to an impoverished, young maiden. The Archangel must have been amazed himself to the surroundings he could see when talking to the Virgin. The incarnation defied belief, but then the very life God the Son embraced was poverty in the boondocks of Palestine. Yet this is the very place where God begins the salvation of the world.
“… I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me. For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 1:25-2:3)
“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9)
In Mary, the sinful flesh of fallen humans is transformed by Christ into a humanity once again capable of theosis. The flesh is not destroyed but converted! The incarnation of the Word of God means the flesh, this world, all of history are capable of being redeemed by God. The fasting of Great Lent is not meant to destroy the flesh but to convert it to being receptive to and capable of bearing the Word of God and the deification that comes to those who unite themselves to Christ.
“Sharing organically in the descent from Adam, participating in the common destiny of all mankind, Mary, however, was kept from all personal impurity. Every evil was rendered inoperative in her. It is this dynamism, this human reaction so royally free, that Nicholas Cabasilas stressed in synthesizing the Patristic tradition. A human being cannot be saved without the free agreement of his own will. ‘The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of his power and of the Holy Spirit, but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the consent of the most Pure One, without the agreement of her faith, this plan would not have been realizable except through the intervention of the Three Divine Persons themselves. It was not until after having instructed and persuaded her that God took Mary to be his Mother, and took from her the flesh that she was willing to give to him. Just as he wished to become incarnate, so too did he wish that his Mother would give birth to him of her own free will.’
The objective action of her motherhood coincided with the action of her personal, active holiness. This is why she is eternally Theotokos, bearer of God and Panagia, the Mother Most-Holy. In her saying fiat, “Let it be done,” she has become Mother, not only in external obedience but also inwardly, by her love of God who came to her. With the Holy Spirit, she was made Theotokos.“ (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church, pp. 169-170)
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
St Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us that Jesus was not adopted by God only when Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus did not become God’s Son only at age 30 when He began His public ministry. Jesus is God’s Son at the Annunciation to the Theotokos. He was already beginning then His ministry of salvation. St. Nikolai writes:
“Lastly, there is an important reason on the general, human level for the Lord Jesus’ going to Egypt, and not to some other country. He did not begin His earthly mission only at the age of thirty, when He opened His divine lips and began to teach. He began His mission at his conception. At His conception by the Holy Spirit, He already had a follower. This was the holy Mother of God. Was not Joseph converted to Christ before His birth? Did not His birth open heaven to the shepherds and fill the astrologers from the East with truth, prayer, and immortality? Did not Herod, together with the hardened leaders and scribes of Jerusalem, fall away from Him and stand against Him while He still lay in the manger? As soon as He was conceived, He became the cornerstone of the palace of salvation, and a stumbling-block to others. As soon as He was conceived, the world around him began to be divided into sheep and goats. Above all, Mary and Joseph were for a short time divided in their view of Him. While Mary knew Him to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Joseph thought Him the fruit of sin. This division lasted only a short time.
But the division made at His birth between, on the one hand, the shepherds and eastern astrologers, and Herod and the wise men of Jerusalem on the other, never came to an end. He came to sow, and at the same time to winnow. And He began his work from His conception in human flesh, right through to His death and glorious Resurrection, and from His Resurrection to this day, and from this day to the Last Judgement. He did not come into the world just to be a thinker. He lept into the drama of human life, as into the darkness of Egypt, to be light and leader, thinker and actor, sacrifice and victor. Indeed, He began His work in the world at that moment when His messenger, the great Archangel Gabriel, came down to Nazareth and announced His coming.” (Homilies, pp. 53-54)
The Gospel Lesson of the Annunciation:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
When we think about salvation, redemption, atonement, Christianity says all of this activity of God happens in this world, within our history, in and through us human beings. God’s plan for salvation may come from all eternity and heaven, but it is realized only in time on earth. The hymns of Great Lent dealing with redemption remind us how our salvation is worked out through the Virgin Theotokos.
Human nature was counted worthy of God’s revelation through you, Virgin full of divine grace, for you are the only mediator between God and man, rightly glorified by us all as the Mother of God!
In choosing the Virgin Mary for the incarnation, God shows His love for the world He created. God shows creation, particularly humans are worthy not only of God’s revelation but of union with God. Mary is the very sign that God sees in her person as well as in her humanity the creation worth saving and capable of being in union with the Creator. God sees in Mary exactly what God created humans and the world for: to share in the love and life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Adam’s nature was made divine, Virgin, when God took flesh without change in your womb! And we who were deceived of old by the hope of becoming gods have been set free from the ancient condemnation.
Both of the above hymns are taken from the Canon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent. God is united to humanity in the womb of the Virgin – Adam’s human nature is made divine in the union with God. Eve was tricked by the Serpent into thinking she could become like God by disobeying God. In Christ the hope of our being god-like becomes a reality for in Christ God submits Himself to taking on human nature. Christ, the incarnate God, conforms humanity to God’s will that we would become divine.
A pain causing lesson: we don’t become divine by asserting our will against God but only by submitting our will to God’s will.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”(Luke 7:47)
Even if there had been only one human who ever sinned, died and went to Hades, Christ would have become incarnate, died on the cross to save that person. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and would leave the 100 billion who never sinned to find that lost sheep. Christ would do this because He is God, and God is love. God loves every single human being who has ever come into existence.
If you were the only one who ever sinned, Christ would die on the cross to save you from your sin and death, because He loves you. It is true that God loves humanity, but that love is always personal. God loves you, not just humanity. God may love you because you are human, but God loves you personally.
The Son of God dies for you, not just for humanity, on the cross. Christ is willing to go to hell even for one sinner. His love is that personal. He comes to call you by name to raise you personally from sin and death. We may exalt Christ for dying because of the sins of the world, but He dies for my sins, even if they are the only sins in the world.
It matters little how many or how few sins others commit. Christ’s love is for you personally, He dies on the cross because of and for your sins and to give you eternal life.
Christ seeks each sinner personally. So in Lent when the hymns of repentance paint “me” as being the foremost or chief among sinners, or of having sinned more than David the adulterous murderer or anyone else, they are also pointing out that even if that is true, Christ still loves me and dies for me and raises me up from hell itself.
As St. Gregory the Theologian confesses about Christ: “For He pleads even now as man for my salvation . . .” (ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, Editors: M Baker, S Danckaert, N Marinides, p 12)
However grave or great my sins may be, Christ still loves me enough to die for me and to continue to intercede before the Father on my behalf. The hymns which portray “me” as a great sinner are also, and more so, pointing out the greatness of God’s love for me.
I need only to accept His love, and renounce my sins and my sinfulness.
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:36-47)
If I feel I have sinned little or rarely, then I do not feel much need for Christ. I will therefore love little, as Christ predicts. Only when I see myself as the foremost of sinners will I be able to love as Christ loves me. When I realize that even if I were the only sinner, Christ would die for me – then do I realize the depth of His love for me. Then I realize how grave my sins really are – not compared to what sins I might commit – but the price that is paid for them: the death of God the Son on the cross. The Son in His love continues to ask God to forgive me my sins.
St. Ephrem the Syrian used poetry as the venue for expressing theology. He wrote many brilliant, beautiful poems. Since today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, it is good for us to consider what was lost by humanity when we exited Paradise in order to pursue our own way to divinity. St. Ephrem writes:
Paradise surrounds the limbs
with its many delights:
the eyes, with its handiwork,
the hearing, with its sounds,
the mouth and the nostrils,
with its tastes and scents.
Blessed is that person who has gathered for himself
the company of all
who have kept vigil and fasted;
they, in return for their fasts,
shall delight to graze
upon its luxurious pastures.
At least in the words above, Ephrem gives Paradise a very physical dimension. Humans used all their senses to delight in the ecstasy of the Garden of Eden. Or perhaps, he is telling us that spiritual joy is not without a physical dimension. God gave us our bodies to enjoy His creation and as the means by which we can know Him and communicate with Him. We don’t escape the body to encounter God. We are the Church of the Incarnation – God took on human flesh!
We also are reminded that this world is not Paradise. What perhaps is more challenging for many of us is to think that in Paradise humans did not enjoy gourmet foods, steaks, lobster, spices, sauces, deserts, cuisines, chefs and restaurants. They ate plants which is the only food God gave them in Paradise!
Ephrem uses an unusual phrase claiming those who keep the fast on earth will enter Paradise and “shall delight to grazeupon its luxurious pastures”. Most of us might imagine a paschal banquet with roast lamb, or glazed ham or steak or fine cheeses and cheesecakes. Will we delight to graze on its pastures? Or do we really love this earth without God more than Paradise with God?
Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,
it enriched me as I meditated upon it;
I forgot my poor estate,
for it had made me drunk with its fragrance.
I became as though no longer my old self,
for it renewed me with all its varied nature.
I swam around
in its magnificent waves;
and in the place that, burning like a furnace,
had made Adam naked,
I became so inebriated
that I forgot all my sins there
St. Ephrem in totally enthralled by Paradise. He is swept up into its glorious beauty and just thinking about it changes his life. Adam and Eve through sin lost their place in the Garden of Delight, and became stripped of all its beauty and mystery. Ephrem is made drunk by its magnificent waves. He is made giddy and was able to forget his sins because of what God made Paradise to be.
Although I was not sufficient
for all the waves of its beauty,
Paradise took me up and cast me
into a sea still greater;
in its fair beauty I beheld those who are far more beautiful than it,
and I reflected:
if Paradise be so glorious,
how much more glorious should Adam be,
who is in the image [ Gen 1:27 ] of its Planter,
and how much fairer the Cross,
upon which the Son of its Lord rode.
Paradise it turns out is not a destination, but rather a bridge to even greater glory. Our growth in Paradise is not limited, we never peak, we never plateau, but ever grow in glory, from one degree to another says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 3:18). However wonderful Paradise is, humans were created for even greater glory! Thus when we sing of the Theotokos that she is more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, we are acknowledging that she does attain to the level of glory that God intended for all humans. God intended humans to be more glorious than Paradise.
Paradise was created by God to serve humans. Humans were not created to serve the glories of the Garden. In what ways are humans superior to the wonders of Paradise? The human heart is more glorious than the blessed buds of the trees in Paradise, human rational speech exceeds in splendor the produce of Paradise, human capacity for truth surpasses all the God given plants of the Garden. Finally, human love is more beautiful than the sweetest scents of the Garden. Humanity is the glory of God, not Paradise. We may marvel over what Paradise was and is to be, but humanity is more glorious in the eyes of God than Paradise will ever be.
Humanities expulsion from Paradise is an epic tragedy. Not because we lost our place there, but because we dehumanized ourselves! We became less than human, we became inhuman, and this was the greatest loss the universe ever experienced.
The incarnation – God taking flesh from the Theotokos is the beginning of the restoration not only of humanity but of the universe itself.
Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will. For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us. Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve. Brock writes:
Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).
The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).
Sermon notes for The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 2017)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
1] “… the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord” – no dualism here. Jesus does not save souls. The body belongs to the Lord. In one famous old movie the sergeant barks, “his soul may belong to Jesus, but his a– (a certain part of his anatomy) belongs to me.” St. Paul would vehemently disagree. Even the Christian’s body belongs to the Lord – the resurrection is about the deification of the entire human being, including our bodies. Bodily sins, sexual sins are sins against the Lord. This is also why fasting is a spiritual exercise and spiritual asceticism involves the body. My body becomes through baptism a member of Christ, part of Christ’s body. This is spiritual, but involves the physical body.
2] The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – we are to glorify God not by escaping our body but by using the body to glorify God. We can achieve a victory for God in and through our bodies. Thus sexual morality is essential. Thus the importance of fasting, self control, self denial. The body is not God and we should not treat it as if it is – it should not control our lives and selves. We are to be masters of our own desires, not slaves to them. (The body belongs to the Lord but note also: “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” – says st. Paul in Philippians 3:18-21). We practice gaining mastery over our bodies in order to submit our entire life to God. That is the goal of Great Lent – transforming our lowly body to conform to His glorious body.
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.
1] The parable, now placed before Great Lent, is commonly seen in Orthodoxy to be one of repentance, exile and return, reconciliation and restoration. In the beginning of this parable, we don’t actually encounter any breaking of any law – it is not illegal for the son to ask for his inheritance. He isn’t sinning against civil law, probably not against Torah either. In a culture in which the first born son is favored by the inheritance process, the younger son might even be wise to take what is his while there is something to get, before the elder brother lays claim to everything. Besides, the Father could have said, “NO!”, to the younger son’s request. But the father is the most consistent person in the parable. He is loving, merciful, forgiving. But to this point, probably no sin is committed by the younger son – if sin is considered mostly as breaking of some law. We have to take this into account when we prepare ourselves for confession. Of what are we repenting? Sin is not always breaking a law. The story so far does not tell us much about the inner nature of the younger son – what are his motives? why is he doing this? We have to speculate to add those details, or perhaps we need to wait to see where the parable is headed.
And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’
2] It quickly becomes obvious the younger son has no plan regarding the inheritance. He doesn’t use it wisely, makes no provision for the future, does not establish himself as he has seen with his own father who had some wealth, a livelihood, a path to follow in life. The younger son is foolish. He burns through his resources immediately and quickly finds himself on the verge of starvation. He is incredibly wasteful, thoughtless and foolish. He “gathered” all his possessions from his father and then “scattered” them in wasteful prodigality and recklessness. Still, in the parable we don’t know exactly what the prodigal did with his wealth. He wasted it, though we can imagine all manners of sin as probably necessary for burning through his wealth so quickly, he might just have been foolish, throwing big parties, spending as if there is no tomorrow, enjoying life with his friends. Even if what he did involved no sin as such, he was a fool, and his folly left him penniless and friendless. No one who enjoyed his prodigality is there to help him in his time of need.
It is his hunger, his need, his poverty which wakes him up. He has nothing left, and nothing to lose. Now he remembers his generous, kind and loving father. He realizes even being a servant or slave in his father’s mansion is better than the freedom of total poverty. He was feeding pigs – a form of slavery with few rewards. He was willing to trade one form of servanthood for another – the servants in his father’s house did not live in poverty, in famine, in pigsties, in starvation. Better a servant in his father’s house, than a free son in a pigsty. His “repentance” as such is self serving, but no matter, the forgiving, loving father will embrace him. Even if his father takes him in as a servant, he still is better off than his current situation. So of what is he repenting? Poverty, hunger, degradation? He is abandoning his folly and embracing wisdom. Whatever terms his father might lay down, still he will be better off being in his father’s house.
In the icon detail: The prodigal has to raise himself above the pigsty mess he is in to see what to do. Often we can’t see our way out of our sinful messes, we are trapped, so we need clairvoyance – clear vision – a new perspective to see Christ, to see the love of God.
And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
3] The loving, forgiving father is over joyed to have his son back. He doesn’t even give his son the chance to express his contrition. The father has been ever watching and hoping for his son’s return. All the son had to do was get himself back into the presence of the father. His father did all the rest. The father’s love is unconditional, full of grace, not dependent on the son making a proper confession and apology. The father’s love is not a reaction to the son’s behavior. The father is loving, he doesn’t wait for the son to beg forgiveness, it is already granted. We can ask ourselves again, of what do we need to confess? Of what should we repent? Are we willing to leave our past indiscretions behind? To abandon prodigal living and instead live as servants of the father? Or do we hope to be able to continue at least in part our wasteful, self-centered pleasure-seeking, while at the same time enjoying the father’s estate? The parable says you can’t have the father’s estate AND a pleasure-seeking attitude in the world. We have to leave that part of our life behind – not because we have no more money to spend in the world, but because we need to live with and for the father, even if we have an abundance of goods. Repentance – we are repenting of our self-centered, self-serving life styles. We are denying ourselves in order to take up our cross! We don’t repent in order to be able to continue pleasuring ourselves, but to take up the cross.
Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”
4] When we call this the parable of the Prodigal, we lose sight of the fact that the parable doesn’t end with the prodigal’s reconciliation with the father. Jesus was only 2/3rds done with the parable at that point. The parable goes on, there is another son in this who does not like his father’s willingness to love and forgive the prodigal. The father remains consistent, loving both of his sons, but the older son seems to think that he is loved if he is the only one loved by the father. He doesn’t feel loved if his father also loves the other son. This is where the parable began – the younger brother, unsure of the father’s love (or of his brother’s love), takes his property and leaves not wanting to have to share with another. Both brothers are selfish and self-centered. The older brother is also not breaking any law in his attitude, but his thoughts are not those of his father. He does not love. It is only with the older brother that we hear the accusation that the younger brother spent his money on prostitutes. This was not mentioned earlier in the parable. Is the older brother speaking the truth or just making an assumption and accusing his younger brother of sin? How does he know what his younger brother has done, for all the younger brother did was done in a country far away.
So, as we prepare ourselves for confession, for true repentance, of what do we have to repent? Sin, as the parable shows, is not just a matter of breaking the law, the Ten Commandments, or the Torah or Tradition. We have to think about love and relationships. For what do we live? Is life mostly about good times and pleasure? Are we ever willing to deny ourselves in order to serve God? Do we avoid serving God so that we can rather serve ourselves? Are we willing to live in the world as God’s servants rather than as free and independent individuals who get the most we can for ourselves out of life?
A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) . There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content. The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human. Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.
Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil. This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve. The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves. They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation. So the first hymn says:
I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;
then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.
But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.
The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity. Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all. God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.
The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation. In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17). She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.
You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;
the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,
for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,
and bring mortal men up to heaven.
Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament. God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself. This promise turns out to be the Theotokos. In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.