Today is the second Sunday of the Triodion — the liturgical book the Church uses in the weeks leading up to and during Great Lent. Today, we hear our Lord, God and Saviour tell us the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is one of the most beloved of all the parables in the Bible, partly because its metaphor is so rich and so deep. There is so much that can be said about this parable, that it poses a major challenge for priests all around the world today — which diamond to I mine today?
The diamond that I want to highlight today are three words — “ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν” (Luke 15:17) — and how they fit into the greater narrative of the Triodion and our own preparation for Great Lent. In English, ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν sounds a bit strange: “he came to himself.” We could imagine the Prodigal Son walking down the street and happening upon himself working away in the pig sty. As weird as this sounds, if we add one more element to this story, it begins to make sense. The Prodigal then asks, “Who is this guy starving as he feeds the pigs?”
This is a very important question, “who is the Prodigal Son?” Poetically, the Church answers this question for us this morning through her hymns. At Orthros we hear over and over again that we are the Prodigal:
And therefore as the Prodigal, I am returning. Receive me, O loving Father, and save me. — Exaposteilarion
The cry of the Prodigal I offer to You, O Lord — Lauds
Like the Prodigal Son, I too, have come, O compassionate one — Lauds
I return, and cry to You the compassionate Father, “I have sinned against heaven and before You, and I am not worthy to be called Your son. Treat me as one of Your hirelings, O God, and have mercy on me.” — Lauds
The gifts of my soul I have squandered with abandon. So, having arisen, once again I return to You and cry, “Treat me as one of Your hirelings.” — Lauds
So the Church turns this question around: who are we? On one hand, we are the sons and daughters of God, made in the image and likeness of God. On the other, we are sinners living, working and starving in the pig sty of our own sins. Today we are called to come to ourselves and come face to face with the reality of sin — how far we have removed ourselves from God our Father. We are to see the reality of how we have squandered the gifts that He has given us. We are to come to the realization that our soul is starving. Most importantly, however, we are to understand that this is not who we are meant to be. We are to come to ourselves — the person that God created us to be.
God did not create us only to see us suffer and die in sin. We are the sons and daughters of God. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and He cannot abide the sight of His creation dying. Already our Father is running from His house to gather us up in His arms to kiss us and welcome us home with a feast. All we need to do is come to ourselves and see our sin, see the image and likeness of God, fall down upon our knees as did the Publican last week and cry out, “Lord have mercy upon me a sinner!”
This action may very well bring to mind the scene from the movie the Godfather where Michael Corleone is at church baptizing his godson while his goons are out murdering his rivals. The idea being that we can go to the confessional, tell the priest all of our sins and go back to being our sinful selves. Michael Corleone is exactly like the Pharisee from last week. He is using God as a tool to advance his own status — to give himself that alibi so that when the police try to find out who is responsible for all these hits, he can say, “I was at church baptizing my godson.” He is still in the pig sty. If we don’t change the way we behave — if we don’t remove those things in our lives that separate us from God — we will remain in the pig sty. We will not even know that we are still there. This is why we are called to come to ourselves. We must see the reality of where we are in our lives and in our relationship with God. The reason that year after year the Church gives us the Triodion and the Great Fast is to allow us to come face to face with where we are in our relationship with sin and God.
During the fast we attempt to fast, give alms to the poor and pray. These are spiritual exercises. These are tools that the Church gives us to use in the battle against sin — those things in our lives that pull us away from God. Each tool can be used to combat different kinds of sin. When we read the Fathers, we find that they have classified three types of sin:
- Irascible (wrath, despair)
- Concupisent (lust, greed)
- Intellectual (vainglory, pride)
Fasting combats irascible sins. By denying ourselves food and taking control of hunger, we not only train ourselves self-control, but we can more easily sympathize with others who are also suffering. Almsgiving combats consupisent sins. When we freely give to others, we shift the focus from our own selfish needs and despires to the real needs of others. Prayer combats intellectual sins. The very act of praying admits that we cannot do this by ourselves. We pray to God knowing that without him we can do nothing.
So every year we set off on this journey towards Pascha — towards the Resurrection. Upon this journey we fast, we give alms and we pray. We exercise spiritually. We use these tools that the Church has given us to come to ourselves — to realize where we are in our lives and in relationship with God. We work our way back towards Him — into the loving embrace of the Father who is waiting with open arms to kiss us, to clothe us and welcome us back into His household.
Let me leave you with another hymn that we sing at the Vespers of the Prodigal Son:
Brethren, let us learn the meaning of this mystery. For when the Prodigal Son ran back from sin to his Father’s house, his loving Father came out to meet him and kissed him. He restored to the Prodigal the tokens of his proper glory, and mystically He made glad on high, sacrificing the fatted calf. Let our lives, then, be worthy of the loving Father who has offered sacrifice, and of the glorious Victim who is the Saviour of our souls. — Stichera of Vespers for the Prodigal Son
Remember, that Christ went to the Cross for us, for exactly this purpose: so that we might come into our Father’s house, that we may partake of His meal and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.