Sunday, February 28, 2016: Sunday of the Prodigal Son; Venerable Basil the Confessor, companion of the Venerable Procopius at Decapolis; Blessed Nicholas (Salos) of Pskov the Fool-For-Christ; Hieromartyr Proterius the Patriarch of Alexandria; Hieromartyr Nestor the Bishop of Magydos in Pamphylia; Venerable Marana of Syria; Venerable Kyra of Syria; Venerable Domnica (Domnina) of Syria.
St Paul in his epistle reminds us that food is for the stomach not the stomach for food. This seems straightforward enough. When we move from the physical to the moral or spiritual dimensions of life, even may Christians have trouble understanding that there is a goal (teleos) to human life and it is that goal, and not my intention, that determines the meaning of my actions. It isn’t my intention that makes my behavior morally good, it is my behavior that makes me good. I become good by doing good things, and doing them consistently,
As we approach the season of the Great Fast, it’s good to remember that our Lenten ascetical disciplines are not ends in themselves. They have a purpose; we pray, fast and give alms for a reason. St John Chrysostom says that “An ascetic effort that is carried out in accordance with the law makes people merciful, restrained, modest, able to keep back their anger, to tame their desires, to give alms, to be kind towards others and to exercise every virtue.” In other words, ascetical discipline is for the moral reformation and graced transformation of the person. While we can distinguish two stages in our change—reformation and transformation—as we grow in the life of Christ, we come to realize that the difference between them is more logical than actually.
Through ascetical I learn to deny my own self-centered and self-aggrandizing tendencies. In other words, I learn, in very practical ways, not to give in to sin. And as sin recedes, virtue grows in me. In fact, what I discover is that virtue is natural to me and it is sin which is the deviation from who God has created me to be.
But what of transformation? Or to use a word maybe more familiar to Orthodox Christians, transfiguration? Does my transformation depend upon a prior moral improvement? No.
There is never a time when the grace of God is absent from the human heart. It is rather the opposite. God is not estranged from me; it is I who am estranged from Him. His grace is always present and available to me though I am not always present and open to His grace.
The reason for this is because of sin. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, sin describes how I am separated from the God Who has joined Himself to me, Who created me and sustains me in each moment of my life. As I enter into the demands of the ascetical life, I discover that God has always been in my life and that what I thought of as my own effort at moral improvement was also the fruit of His presence in my heart. Moral reformation, like physical growth, is the fruit of divine grace.
Chrysostom uses an odd, and potentially disturbing, phrase. He refers to “ascetic effort that is carried out in accordance with the law.” Law in this case doesn’t mean an external juridical mandate but a trusting obedience to the tradition of the Church. But again, this obedient trust has a goal, our growth in mercy, self-restraint, modesty, peacefulness and generosity to others in their need. These are the standards of the ascetical life and it is these that should guide us in how fully we keep the ascetical disciplines the Church puts before us.
If fasting makes me irritable or if attendance at services causes me to neglect those who need me, then I need to re-evaluate carefully my situation. Maybe I need to fast less or attend fewer services. On the other hand, maybe the problem is my attitude. Maybe my fasting is superficial and sloppy. Likewise, it could be that the problem isn’t that I am attending too many services but that I misuse my time when I’m not at church.
Keeping—or rather, not keeping—the Lenten ascetical is not strictly a matter of sin. Yes, the attitude that I bring to my asceticism can be sinful. But what I eat or how much I eat? This isn’t a question of sin but personal circumstances.
Great Lent is a preparation not only to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. It is also a preparation for our personal and shared transformation in Christ; “first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:26, NKJV). God transforms the Christian from the inside out. And why wouldn’t He? In baptism He has not only joined us to Himself, He has come to dwell in our hearts. The ascetical life builds in the presence of Christ in us.
Turning to the Gospel, what do we see?
Hearing as we do the parable of the prodigal son every year as we approach Great Lent, we might allow familiarity to lull us into thinking we know the story. The story breaks down neatly for us into the merciful father, the repentant wayward (i.e., prodigal) son and the resentful older brother. But this is. I think, too easy. We need to reflect on parable in terms of the family.
Like fasting, family life has a goal. In fact, and just like our asceticism, the goal of the family is the reformation and transformation of the person. God the Father gives us the life of the family not simply as a means of communicating physical life but as the means to form us into the likeness of His Son, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s in the family, that we first learn—or at least should first learn—the virtues we need to live life in Christ. So with this in mind, what do we see?
In a word, failure.
Yes, the younger son wastes his inheritance on dissolute living. But remember, his father gave him that money. To us a contemporary phrase, the father enabled his son’s bad behavior. At least in the beginning of the story, the father is not only, not a model of forgiveness, he really isn’t much of dad.
But something happens to the father after his son leaves home. The absence of the son begins to change him. He comes to miss his son. In fact, doesn’t just miss his boy, he longs to see him again. So intense is his longing, the father stands waiting for his son’s return.
And when he sees his son? He runs to embrace him. Father and son both experience a profound change because the experience an absence of love in their lives that couldn’t be filled by either sensual pleasure or the presence of others,
And when that absence is absent? When we don’t feel the absence of love in our lives? Well, then we become like the elder son. Proper and upright but indifferent to the great mystery of divine grace and mercy at work in the human heart. I remain untouched by the work of grace in your heart because I am indifferent to grace in my own.
And like asceticism, and like the family, the life of the Church also has a goal. Like the family and ascetical struggle, the life of the Church is about the transformation of the person. But as we see in the parable, this only happens if we experience the pain of love’s absence in our lives. If we come to church expecting to be filled, or to have the sting of love’s absence taken away, we undermine what God would do for us.
The comfort we are offered in the life of the Church is this: The Church points us to Christ and reminds us that it is only in Christ, that the sting of love’s absence is lifted.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we prepare to enter into the Great Fast and make our annual journey to Pascha, let us ask God to make us aware of the absence of love not only in our own lives but in the lives of all we meet. And, having experienced that absence in ourselves, let us have the courage and the compassion to point others to Christ.