Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.
Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.
But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.
This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”
Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”
When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.
So what does?
Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.
…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.
Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.
And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).
This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.
And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.
We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.
Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.
You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).
Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.
And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.
When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.