The Orthodox Pages



13th February 2014





































































































































































After weeks of studying the Old Testament, we have covered the first four Books of Moses, but as we have another 45 books of the Old Testament to cover, which will take us at least a couple more years, I think we need a break from the study to give ourselves the opportunity to see a very important period in the Church's life which has much to teach us on how to prepare ourselves spiritually to truly find Christ. The important period I am referring to is Great Lent, which is often described as a spiritual journey having as its final destination Pascha, the Feast of all Feasts.
The purpose of Great Lent is to strengthen and prepare us spiritually to understand the meaning of the great and unique joy of the Resurrection and its significance and meaning to our own life. Like all feasts, Pascha comes around each year, but it is not just a commemoration of the new life that shone forth from the grave two thousand years ago, it is also the celebration of the new life given to each of us who believe in Christ, a new life that was given to each of us on the day of our Baptism. In theory we should be bathed in the Resurrection light and be shining forth like Christ and the saints, but because of the weakness of our human nature we constantly betray this "new life" we received at baptism. We are consumed with our daily preoccupations and the cares of this world. We fill our time with so many things that we must do that we forget the true meaning of life and sink into a life void of Christ, living as though he didn’t rise from the dead. Our life becomes a meaningless journey and as we sink further and further into sin and in the midst of our enjoying life we even forget that death looms over us and might all of a sudden take us by surprise. Our new life we received at baptism becomes buried under the mud of our various sins that the light of the resurrection no longer shines in our hearts: it becomes so dimmed that our life again resembles the “old life in darkness”.

But how do we overcome the pulling magnet of this world and the media which constantly teaches us that life means to be successful, to seek wealth, fame and glory, a social status which is identified by our home, our car and the brand names of our clothes and accessories? These according to the world are the things that will give us fulfilment and happiness in life and a sense of security and pleasure. This according to the Gospel is the broad way, but Christ tells us to choose the narrow way, the difficult and often painful road of suffering which leads to genuine and eternal happiness. It is not an easy choice especially in our age where the world at large considers suffering for Christ as something foolish and illogical. It needs a certain amount of faith to begin this journey of return and only if someone has experienced at sometime in his life the “new man” in him can he understand that there is at the end of the road a genuine happiness that has nothing to do with this material world.
The Church fully understands human weakness and knows that the individual cannot undertake this difficult journey of return on his own and is ready to give to each the strength and support that will help them safely reach the desired destination. This is where Great Lent comes in: it is the help extended to us by the Church. It is a period of repentance with prayer and fasting, which if followed with obedience, will permit us to experience Pascha not as a day where we celebrate just the historical event of the Lord’s Resurrection and an excuse to eat drink and be merry, but as the renewal of our Baptism with the reburying of the “old man” in us and the rebirth of the “new man” bathed once more with the light of the Resurrection.
Thus Lent helps us to regain that which we received at baptism and which we constantly lose due to worldly distractions and careless living. Great Lent is our return journey back to Christ and the Kingdom of God, but this return will not happen if we do not take Lent seriously. The help the Church gives during this period is not a set of negative rules and obligations that she imposes on us. Many people observe Lent as a law imposed on them by the Church and if they don't observe it to the letter, God will punish them. If we see Lent in this way then we have lost the meaning before we even begin. The purpose of Lent is not to deprive us of certain foods or to force upon us certain obligations, but to soften our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit. It is an atmosphere into which we voluntary enter and which for seven weeks penetrates and saturates our entire life. Lent needs a state of mind where the person acknowledges his alienation from God and hungers to re-establish the lost relationship and communion with him. But this state of mind does not happen overnight: it needs its own preparation. So before the actual beginning of Lent the Church announces its approach and invites us to enter into the period of pre-Lenten preparation.

The Church knows how we humans cannot change abruptly from one spiritual state of mind to another and need time to adjust and prepare. This pre-Lenten preparation began last Sunday with our entrance into the period known as the Triodion. The Triodion is the service Book used by the Church from last Sunday and continues throughout Great Lent until the last service on Holy and Great Saturday night just before the Resurrection service, which then begins a new period in the Church's cycle known as the Pentecostarion. The name Triodion takes its name from the odes sung during Mattins on weekdays of this period. At all other times of the year a collection of short hymns called the canons are made up of eight odes or canticles. Now instead of eight there are only three odes - thus trio for three plus odes make up the word Triodion. It is the book of Lent, but it begins with four Sundays before the onset of Great lent with themes that will help us to prepare for that spiritual journey that will lead us to that that great feast of Pascha. The period of the Triodion is a period of abstinence, temperance and self-restraint: a time for increased spiritual warfare with the purpose of purifying both the soul and body. For each of the four Sundays before Lent, the liturgical themes are based on the Gospel readings of that Sunday. Last Sunday, being the first, began with the Gospel reading of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.
The main message of the Parable is repentance and that is why it was chosen as the Gospel reading to open the new season of the Triodion. It is telling us that it is time to repent and change the way we live and the purpose of this change is to live the life of the Cross so that we may meet Christ.
For the Church the whole of a person’s life is a time of repentance, but because we are careless and lazy in spiritual matters and because we have to defeat and overcome the resistance of our rebellious flesh which doesn’t want to be subjected and bound to the spiritual life, the Church proclaims repentance and calls us to battle even just for this short period before Easter. Before repentance our bearings and affections relate to our fallen state, or us St. Paul say, to the “old man” or the man according to the flesh. Our whole life is wasted satisfying the desires and pursuits of our egocentric self. These bearings and affections lead man to eternal death because they distance him from God. The Church’s call for repentance means to destroy the old self which is governed by the passions and transform these bearings and affections into a living communion with God and man.
The period of the Triodion, and especially the four preparatory Sundays, wants to make us aware of the true meaning of life. Our detachment from God is detachment from life, and only where God is can we find eternal life. Where God is absent there is death – first of the soul and then of the body. Thus if we want to live we must change our way of life, we must repent. Lent teaches us how to change and offers us the tools which will help us to do battle against the resistance generated by our carnal desires. These tools are fasting, prayer, charity and almsgiving, love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness and our participation in the Sacraments of the Church. By following this new way of living we partake of the Lord’s Passion. By putting to death the passions and our life according to the flesh, we partake of the Cross and are resurrected into a new life with God. By walking a new path in life we become new people and our prototype is none other than Christ who is our salvation. This u-turn of both the body and soul, in search of God’s grace for help so that we may follow in Christ’s footsteps by becoming dead and resurrected, is the purpose of the Triodion and especially of Great Lent.
In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee Christ gives us to understand what is and what is not repentance. Repentance is the first step on the road to salvation. It means to acknowledge that our life on earth is a temporary abode: a life in exile from the Paradise of Bliss which we lost when Adam fell from grace. Christ, through his Death and Resurrection, re-opened the gates of paradise for man and our time on earth is given to us to strive to re-enter this paradise by living not according to the lustful desires of the flesh, but according to the spirit. St. Paul says “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace”.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia and means to have a change of mind, but it means more than just a short term feeling of remorse: it entails a complete change in lifestyle to a way of life according to the will of God. At the dawning of a new era, John the Baptist, preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah, preached “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”. When Christ came he preached the same message and through his teaching he continually pounded the message of repentance showing us how necessary it is for our salvation. This message of repentance has never stopped; it was taken up by the Apostles, and the Church, through the liturgical hymns and sermons and other means at her disposal, continually reminds us that we must repent of our sinful ways if we want to live eternally with Christ.
The four Sundays before Lent each have important teachings to prepare us and put us in the proper frame of mind that we must have to reap the spiritual benefits of Great Lent. The first two Sundays teach us repentance and humility which are interdependent, the third Sunday teaches us about love for all people and the fourth, just before the onset of Great Lent, teaches us the importance of forgiveness and how to pray and fast in a manner that will help us reap the rewards of our effort so that our time in the spiritual arena of Great Lent will not have been in vain.
The spiritual teachings of the first two Sundays are presented to us through Parables. Every parable requires that we change our behaviour, our thoughts, our beliefs, in fact our complete way of life if we want to be saved and live eternally with God. To understand all parables we must first identify ourselves with the characters, because one of them is me. Jesus is talking directly to me and he wants me to understand how distant my life is from God. Thus, in the first of these Parables read last Sunday, we are asked to search our heart and to identify ourselves with either the Publican or the Pharisee. This does not mean that the identification needs to be exactly the same: in the story there are elements that refer to fallen human nature and as we are all part of this fallen nature then naturally there are some common elements that we can all identify with.
The Parable speaks of two men who come to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was a member of a religious group who, as puritans of the Jewish faith, zealously kept the letter of the Law. He believes that he is an exemplary example to others of what a good Jew must be and because he was such a perfect Jew who had never made a mistake he never felt the need for repentance. He goes to the temple to pray, but his prayer is not a thanksgiving but a proclamation of his righteousness. He is so self-assured and proud of himself that he is perfect that he justifies himself before God that he is righteous, and not like other men who are extortioners, unjust and adulterers and seeing the Publican who was standing at a distance, he adds “and especially not like that Publican” whom he considered as the worst kind of person – the scum of the earth.
Publicans were tax collectors, but a lot worse than Inland Revenue. They bought from the Romans, the rights to collect the taxes from the people, but instead of collecting the proper taxes that the Romans asked for, they burdened the people with double or triple amounts and were therefore very much hated and held in contempt as being the lowest of all men.
The Pharisee cannot see his own wretched condition; he cannot see his own sins, but only the sins of other men. He keeps to the letter of the law by fasting twice a week and contributes to the temple according to what the law tells him to contribute. He thanks God not for his beneficence, but because he is different from everyone else. All other people are extortioners, unjust and adulterers. He judges, insults and humiliates everyone except himself.
In contrast to the Pharisee, the Publican, stood afar off, and because he recognized his sins and felt his unworthiness before God, couldn’t lift his eyes up to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. The Publican does not act or pretend to be good so that he can gain the respect and admiration of the people. He presents himself as unjust, a money shark who extorts the people of their living, someone with an unclean and polluted soul. He doesn’t pretend to be pious, because he isn’t. He says the truth no matter how bitter that truth is. With such feelings not only does he humble himself, but breaks down before God and with total remorse for his sinful life, he yearns for Christ’s forgiveness and for a new beginning and inner relationship with him.
Entering the temple, he stands afar off, in other words he avoids every prominent position unlike the Pharisee who probably stood in the centre to be seen be all. The Publican doesn’t want to place himself in the public eye; he has no desire for public recognition: he stood afar off because he felt unclean and unworthy of entering further into the temple. He prays with a contrite heart, with tears and groanings, he beats his breast and asks for the greatest of all things, for God’s mercy. His continual prayer is “God be merciful to me a sinner.” His passion for wealth has been transformed into passion for God’s mercy and this is repentance.
The central message of the Parable is repentance and humility, but it is interwoven which warnings to beware of the sin of pride. Like I said earlier we need to identify with the characters of the Parable, but can we truly say that we can identify ourselves with the Publican; do we have his humility and tears? For most of us the answer is no so the only other character in the story is the hypocritical and cruel Pharisee. We may not like him and certainly we can’t imagine ourselves resembling him even the slightest, but if we look deep and truly examine ourselves there are elements of him in all of us. We may not even recognise the similarities because pride is a devious sin and has a way of concealing itself in righteousness. Good is not always good. We judge what is good by our fallen human nature, yet this good might be completely different to what the Gospel teaches and if it is different then it is not really good, but evil dressed up as good.

This can sound confusing and even a paradox, but that is because we don’t properly understand how our fallen human nature is mixed with evil. The good taught by Christ always involves humility and if our good thoughts and actions are not the result of humility then they are not really good because somewhere in all the good that we do we will also find pride and a feeling of self-satisfaction that we have done good. For example, when we do something good do we not want recognition for what we have done, if we help someone do we not want at least a thank you, when we fast do we not let others know that we are doing our duty as good Christians? Let’s us not forget that the Pharisee was a good Jew; he observed all the requirements of the Law. For us also, if we fulfil the requirements of the Church will we not also consider ourselves as good Christians? When we talk with others who have no idea about religious matters do we not take pride that we have a certain amount of knowledge and can enlighten them. Somewhere in all that we do pride is always lurking and hiding and ready to pop up its ugly head. If we assume that we are spiritually strong enough to overcome pride then this is also a form of pride. No matter how virtuous we have become, if there is still a little pride in the background then our virtues have no value. Pride is the hardest vice to overcome. It is the mother of all vices and the original sin. It was pride that brought down Lucifer and his angelic order. It was pride that brought about Adam’s exile from Paradise. That was why Christ clothed himself with humility to reopen the gates of Paradise.
Humility is the only thing that can overcome pride. That is why the Parable gives us the two extremes – the Pharisee’s pride and the Publican’s humility. By placing this Parable as the beginning of the Triodion the Church wants to teach us that the first step on our journey to meet Christ is to learn humility. This is easier said than done. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues because in society the general understanding is that humility is a sign of weakness. But God himself is humble and if we want to follow in Christ’s footsteps we must also learn to be humble as Christ said ‘Learn from me for I am meek and humble in heart’. It takes a strong man to be humble. It is not just turning the other cheek; it means to have Christ-like love, to love all people and to be able to forgive them deep down in one’s heart, to be able to truly say, ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’. Humility means not to blame others for our own errors, not to look around and judge at what others do.
Can we honestly say that if someone was to insult us in public as did the Pharisee to the Publican, that we would not be offended, that we would not be angered, that we would not verbally retaliate and give as good as we got? Would we have feelings of sincere love for that person, would we pray for that person and would we say in our hearts: “God forgive him for he knows not what he does?”
Humility means to become like Christ and to accept as Christ did before his life-saving sacrifice on the Cross the spittings, the scourging, the buffetings, the curses, the mocking, the crucifixion and death. As true followers of Christ we must always be ready to suffer ridicule and humiliation. Christ said that “The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you;” but he also said: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”
This Sunday's Gospel reading is the Parable of the Prodigal Son which again has repentance as its central theme and there are many elements of the story that are similar to the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee. Again there are two people which in this case are two sons who represent mankind, but with the added character of the loving father who patiently awaits for the Prodigal son to return to his bosom.
The Parable is as follows:
“The Lord said 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 falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet 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 unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, 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. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:11-32)
As with the previous parable we must first identify ourselves with the characters, because one of them is me. Jesus is talking directly to me and he wants me to understand how distant my life is from God. There are three main characters in the story: the father, the eldest son and the youngest son. We cannot be the father because he is God so we must identify ourselves with one of the two sons. The question is which of the two do we most resemble? The one starts off as a rebellious youth but through humility discovers the meaning of love and the other seems to be good and pious but is finally revealed as a false hypocrite. In the Parable Christ brings together the various forms of human wastefulness. We can say that the younger son is a symbol of the visible wastefulness and the older brother is a symbol of the invisible wastefulness. The two sons represent the two basic categories of men: those who want to live without God in their lives and those who want to live a life in God.
With the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Lords want to reveal to us the wealth of his love for man and to show the story of mankind which is represented by the two sons. The younger son leaves the paternal home and becomes prodigal, in other words reckless, but he is then humbled and repents for what he did and enjoys the love and mercy of the Father. The other son, the older of the two, appears to be near the Father, but in reality is very distant from him, because he envies his brother, he doesn’t obey the Father and insists on doing his own will which in the end deprives him of the fathers banquet. Let’s then take a deeper look at the parable.
The man which the parable speaks of is God who, wanting to show his love for mankind, took upon himself the human nature and became a man so that we could become gods. With the two sons he wants to show the qualities of the father; his very strong paternal love, which knows how to embrace, to kiss, to accept and to forgive sinners. From this father the younger son asks to be given his share of the inheritance. What is this inheritance?
They are the divine graces which the father has granted us so that we can be like him. It is the image and likeness of God with which we were created with: It is our very existence, the earth which God took and the breathe that he breathed into it, the grace of the Holy Spirit which he placed in us, the spiritual part of our existence with the possibility of growing spiritually and becoming one with God. It is the gifts of wisdom and prudence, the gift of discernment, the blessings we received at Baptism, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual virtues, and above all the gift of our free will. The younger son wants all the gifts which he believes are rightfully his and they are as long as he remains in God, but he wants to enjoy them without any strings attached to God and his divine protection.
The journey of the younger son is the journey of the fallen man, a journey towards death, to a real hell, because it is a journey of rejection and abandonment of God. It begins from the moment where the younger son asks to leave the paternal home and the presence of his father. And when we say to leave, it doesn’t mean to leave to another place, but to another way of life: to not be under the guardianship of God and without having to observe his commandments, which are life. The younger son believed that he could by himself become a god. He thought he was capable of everything. He made bad use of the divine grace of independence, of the freedom that God granted us so that we can choose a way of life with him of without him.
That is why God the Father doesn’t try to stop his son from leaving, because he gave him that freedom and also because he doesn’t want near him people who don’t love him and who think that they don’t need him. He leaves them to mature in their own time, to understand their inadequacy, to test and experience their freedom and by themselves to return.
So the Prodigal Son, the fallen man, gathers everything, the divine graces, the substance of the father, and departs from God’s way of life, from the personal relationship with him and begins a different life without God. He is now interested in living a biological life, and to satisfy the desires of his material existence. By abandoning God, the sinful passions now take his place. These now govern and direct him and he becomes enslaved to them. His substance, the graces which God gave him, are scattered and wasted on the various passions so that he can enjoy the pleasures of sin. But the pleasures are only momentarily and don’t last. As soon as man partakes of these temporary pleasures they are gone and he desires more. The devil doesn’t allow complete fullness and satisfaction so that man does not stop sinning.
The Gospel reading talks about a great famine and the Prodigal being in great want. This is a spiritual hunger brought about by being deprived of God. All the foods that satisfy the body are like husks that the swine eat if the “Bread of Life” is absent. The body is nourished but the soul dies of starvation and then follows the decay and death of the body. Because the sensual life does not satisfy man, he feels the hunger and the bereavement of being deprived of God and having wasted the divine graces. Nothing remains of the spiritual and divine. His deprivation, his loss, is complete. The Greek word for prodigal is άσωτος which not only means someone who leads a reckless life but also someone who is deprived of salvation ά-σωτος. Deprived of God and the relationship with him, deprived of the blessing to love and be loved, his life, his whole nature is black and destitute.
No one can replace the emptiness of God. Without God he is only flesh that decays and dies. He becomes similar to the animals and more rather like the pigs in the story. His life has because a pig’s life, in other words full of passions and unclean. To this he was prompted by the citizens of the country that were far away from God, in other words the demons. To this place is led the man who sees the Lord’s yoke as heavy. He becomes subject to the yoke of the passions and falls to the level of an animal. His glory and his honour which God had granted him have been taken away by the swine.
Where he was once rich and self-sufficient, he now has to find work to survive, but can only find work looking after swine. When Jesus says in the Parable that he looked after swine, he was trying to say that this occupation was the most humiliating of all professions. Firstly we must remember that the Jews were forbidden to eat pork, so for the Jewish nation there was no need for rearing swine and for a decent Jew, rearing a herd of swine was degrading. The Prodigal son did not become a shepherd of sheep like the Patriarchs of Israel were, but a shepherd of greedy, noisy and filthy pigs.
In a state of spiritual and bodily hunger, the Prodigal son tries to fill his belly with the husks the pigs fed on. He has reached rock bottom and despondency has taken over his very existence. Despondency is a state which the fathers consider the greatest danger for the soul. Someone in this state cannot see anything good or positive and his thoughts become negative and pessimistic. It leads to disbelief in God and brings about a spiritual suicide, a death to the soul.
It is while in this state that the Prodigal Son suddenly came to his senses. He realized and acknowledged his fall from grace; he admitted to himself that the life which he once thought was true life was only a fool’s life and that true life was what he once had in the bosom of his father.
The beginning of repentance is mourning and regret. It is the beginning of salvation. Now the Prodigal son begins to understand that his disposition to be at a distance from his father was the counteraction of his carnal nature to not be subject to God and his will. Because he gave in to his self-ruling material and earthly nature, he was enslaved by it and reached as far as hell. Now that he was dead and lost, he begins to understand the cost of his departure and dissociation from God the father. His only salvation is “I will arise and go to my father”. No matter how far he sank into debauchery and a reckless life, no matter that he was living in hell, inside him the image of his father was never ever destroyed. His thirst to return to the father was a leftover of the original way of life he had with love and communion with the father.
As he prepares to return he has to battle with the last remnants of his pride and accept humility. How could he return in his wretched condition, to the house he left in contempt, to the father he knows must have suffered greatly on his departure, to the brother who he envied because he stayed at home and was victorious. How could he return broke without a cent in his pocket, without shoes, without clothing, without a ring on his finger, unrecognizable, changed from the slavery, the hunger, and the scorching sun and very dirty from the filthy swine. Wouldn’t it give opportunity for his brother and neighbours and even the servants to show their superiority, their righteousness? What would they all say? Would he not be an object to be ridiculed? How could he kneel before his ageing father who he didn’t even say goodbye to when he left? And he left like a prince but would be returning like a worm. How could he now drink of the water from the place he once spat? How could he return to the home to which he had now become a complete stranger? These are thought that probably went through his mind because he still didn’t know the full extent of the Father’s forgiving love. He accepted his guilt with self condemnation, but did he have the strength to overcome the humiliation of walking home with his tail between his legs?
Now the father seems excessively compassionate. With his silent love he awaits with great patience until his return. And seeing him still a long way off, runs and completely embraces him and kisses him to show him that he is welcomed and accepted, not as a servant, but as a son. With his kiss he purifies him and sanctifies him.
In spite of the fathers love, the Prodigal, who is now saved, confesses he sin: “I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” It is as though he is saying; “I am to blame for everything.” He doesn’t throw the blame on his father whom he originally thought had him follow strict rules and because he felt pressured decided to leave. He now believes that he alone was guilty and avoids making excuses to justify himself. The father’s commandments now seem as an easy and light burden.
The father re-establishes him to his original position as a son and dresses him with the original robe. The English text says the “best robe” which is in fact a wrong translation. In Greek it is (την πρώτη στολή) the first robe or the original robe which properly interpreted means the first body that Adam had before the fall with the divine graces befit for a son. He does not make him a servant, but a beloved son. He offers him a ring on his hand which is the betrothal of the future life and the kingdom and is a sign that he begins again his relationship with the heavenly bridegroom. The ring also signifies his reinstatement as a son and heir because rings were worn by free men, by lords and masters, by someone with authority and power and not by servants.
If the beginning of repentance is mourning and regret, the end is the reinstatement to the paternal home. A new life begins of love and communion with God and other men according to the image of the Holy Trinity. Man is now a partaker of the life of Christ. The shoes on his feet signify the return of the Spiritual graces of Baptism, the spiritual wealth and power of a son and heir because servants had to go barefooted. They also represent the authority to preach the Gospel, because a Christian is he who is of benefit to his neighbour. It is also the power to step upon snakes and scorpions, in other words upon Satan. And being given all these gifts, the Prodigal Son is given the greatest of all gifts: “the fatted calf”, the Body and Blood of Christ, who was sacrificed to give us life. Now he is delivered from the famine and starvation because he will be nourished with the “Fatted Calf”, who “being ever eaten, never is consumed; But sanctifieth them that partake thereof”. It is the food and sustenance for all who remain in the father’s house.
The Criterion which the Parable gives us to analyse the two sons, who represent all of us, is the beloved relationship with our Father which is in heaven and with each and every man who is our brother. Can we love God the Father with all our being and can we receive within us every man without exception? This is what will save us.
The younger son reached the point of death, because he wounded and rejected this relationship. He returned to life when he repented, confessed and re-established his relationship with his father. The older son outwardly appeared to have preserved his relationship with the father, but in reality it was non-existent. As it tells us in the Parable, when his brother returned he was in the fields and when he came close to the house and was informed of the great joy in the house he became angry “and would not go in”. If he was a true son of the father, who is all-embracing love, if he was the image of the father then he should have been happy and should have expressed his love also. But he didn’t do it because inside him were passions secretly hiding until a moment when they could manifest themselves. Inside him were the passions of jealousy, of hatred and pride. These confused his spirit and clouded his reasoning. He loved only himself and thought of himself as righteous, incapable of making a mistake. What was missing in him was humility. His father rejoiced at the wellbeing of his son but he was angry and desired that he should be punished; he would have taken great joy so see his father send away his younger brother. Thus in reality he was not in communion with the father, he was not associated with him in any way.
The younger son was saved by his feeling that he still had a father. The older son doesn’t even call him father. His relationship with the father is not based on internal love but on a formality. “Lo, these many years do I serve thee”; he worked the inheritance which was his, but he had no love either for his father or for his brother. He claims that he never disobeyed the father at any time, yet now that the father pleads with him to show love and compassion for his long lost brother he disobeys and refuses to enter the house. He doesn’t even recognize him as a brother, but says “this thy son”. The story shows us that someone can appear to be close to God; he regularly attends Church and boasts that he observes all that the Church requires of him, but if his relationship with God and his fellow men is not based on love then he doesn’t live according to the image of God. The Church is a community of people that love each other.
At no point in the parable does the older son appear to accept the fact that he made a mistake and then to confess it and receive forgiveness. For everything the father is to blame, because he received back his child, because he killed the fatted calf, because he never ever gave him a kid that he might make merry with his friends. He smears his brother’s name by pointing out that he had devoured his living with harlots, he was not interested in his brother’s wellbeing but in the waste of wealth which wasn’t even his. He humiliates and dishonours his brother to show his own superiority and excellence. He self-excluded himself from the father’s paradise of love because he had no love. He remained without salvation and became himself ά-σωτος – prodigal, because he didn’t “come to himself” that is, he didn’t come to his senses and as the fathers of the Church say: for the pure in heart God is light that enlightens and for the impure fire that burns.
So where do we find ourselves? Which of the two do we represent? May God find us worthy “to come to our senses” that we may make the right choices so that we might not be deprived of the father’s house and the banquet of the Fatted Calf.