FOR THE NEXT FEW SUNDAYS Psalm 136 (LXX) is chanted before the Gospel at Orthros. Describing the plight of Jewish exiles in the seventh century BC, it begins with this verse: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.”
When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC they deported the defeated Jewish king along with nobles and important craftsmen to Babylon. In response to successive revolts the Babylonians destroyed the temple and deported even more people.
The forced exile ended in 538 BC after the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who gave the Jews permission to return to Judea and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
This theme of exile comes to the fore today as the Church asks us to consider that we too are exiles, not from the Kingdom of Judah but from the Kingdom of God. The difference is that, while the deported Jews knew that they were exiles, we are largely unaware of it or unconcerned about it. We are doing reasonably well, our lives are satisfying and we are confident that things are getting better and better every day. But the Church holds up before us this image of exile so that we may realize that we are far from home, we are not where we are meant to be. This realization is the first step in the Lenten journey to find our way back to God.
We Are the Prodigal Son
When the son in Christ’s parable took his inheritance, he went off to “a far country” to live the good life. He succeeded in doing so, as long as his money held out. Then things changed for the worse. At the end even the pigs ate better than he did. Only then did he realize how far he had fallen.
First, the Prodigal saw his situation for what it was. He came to realize that he was at the bottom and things couldn’t get much worse. Secondly he thought about the home he had forsaken. Finally he made the decision and acted upon it: “I will arise and go to my father” (Luke 15:18).
Like the deported Jews the Prodigal came to see himself as exiled. But while the Jews had been forcibly deported to Babylon and could not return home, the Prodigal had exiled himself from his true home. He was therefore able to pick himself up and embark on the journey back. He rightly saw his need to admit his wrongdoing and express his sorrow. “I 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’” (Luke 15: 18-19).
Many people addicted to alcohol, drugs or other self-destructive behavior come to the same realization when they “bottom out”. Their recovery process begins when they accept responsibility for their condition and seek to make amends. We may recognize the similarity of an addict to the Prodigal, but fail to see the comparison with ourselves.
All of us are far from home, perhaps not because of addiction but because of sin. The sin of Adam – seeking to live independently of God – is replicated in the lives of each of us in one way or another. Mankind wants the inheritance – all that we receive from God – but does not value a relationship with the Father. The difference is that while a recovering addict, like the Prodigal, has a clear sense of his addiction, we may be unaware of our loss because we have not “hit bottom”. We may not realize that being away from the Father’s house is in fact to be in exile.
Repentance: the Way Home
During this pre-Fast period and during the Great Fast itself this hymn is sing at Sunday Orthros: “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of life, for my soul comes early to Your Holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled; but since You are merciful, cleanse me in Your compassionate mercy.” What are these doors of repentance?
They are in fact the first steps indicated in the parable of the Prodigal and they constitute our program for this pre-fast period. We can begin with a realistic assessment of our life, our “inventory”, to use a popular term. What are the things we live for? Are they things of the earth or are they “those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God” as St Paul describes them (Colossians 3:1)? Do we give only lip service to the Scriptures, to the Eucharist, or to Christ’s poor or do they have a central place in our lives? We should take time to reflect on the signs of God’s love for us, the blessings of eternal life which we have received. Finally we should commit ourselves to action, to arise and go to the Father.
Our Welcoming Father
In 1884 the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy published a cantata called The Prodigal Son. His work was loosely based on the Gospel parable but Debussy did not include its real meaning in his composition. In his cantata the main character is neither the son nor his father, rather it is the mother, not mentioned in the Gospel at all. When the father learns that his son has returned, he does not welcome him although he kneels at the older man’s feet asking forgiveness. In Debussy’s version it is only in response to the pleadings of the boy’s mother that the father takes his son back.
While Debussy may have given us an accurate picture of a nineteenth century bourgeois French father, the Gospel is presenting a picture of God and it is very different. In Luke the father does not wait for his son to come and kneel before him; he runs to welcome the young man home even before he can say his little apology. When the older brother objects, the father runs out to him. He is more concerned with his son than with the son’s hurtful actions. The Gospel portrait of the father shows us that repentant children have nothing to fear from their Father when they return to Him.
What about if we cannot carry out our good intentions to repent? If we forget our resolve, lose interest or fail? St Peter of Damascus offers this advice: “But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even if you don’t want to, show humility like the publican (Luke 18:13): this is enough to ensure your salvation.”
Thus we return to the prayer of the publican which will accompany us throughout the Great Fast: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” When we recognize our weakness and sinfulness, God recognizes the intentions of our heart. He is and always will be our loving Father.
Brethren, our purpose is to know the power of God’s goodness: how when the Prodigal Son gave up sin and hastened to his father’s house, his kindly father welcomed him and kissed him and marked him with signs of honor. He manifested his mystical joy to the inhabitants of Heaven by killing the fatted calf in order that we too may do what is right before the Sacificer, the Father and the Lover of Mankind, and the Victim, the glorious Savior of our souls. (Stikheron at Vespers)
O Christ, open Your arms to me, and in Your great mercy accept me as I return from the distance country of sin and passion. (Canon, Ode 3)