Some of you may know that for Eastern Orthodox Christians, this week marks the beginning of Great Lent, a period in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Cross and Resurrection of Christ at Easter.
Although Orthodox Christians follow slightly different traditions around Great Lent, the basic meaning of these forty days is the same for us. To put it simply, Lent is a journey back to our spiritual home in the Presence of God, who created us so that He might embrace us and love us, and that we might love Him in return.
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s love for us, for in Him God took human nature to Himself once and for all, making it a part of who He is. And in the Passion of Christ—His suffering on the Cross, death and resurrection—the divine-human union was completed. God had finally united Himself with human experience, from birth to death and beyond.
Our realization of this astounding and mysterious Fact is the purpose of Great Lent, which is in no way isolated from the rest of the year. Lent, rather, is a kind of temporal magnifying glass, revealing in intense, close-up detail the meaning not only of the rest of the year, but the rest of our lives. The coming forty days remind us more potently and poignantly than ever of our calling to continuously return to God’s Presence. He has united Himself to us, and we must unite ourselves to Him daily, moment by moment.
Nowhere is this journey of reunion more perfectly described than in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many of you may know the story, which is told in the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. A young man, perhaps fed up with the tedium and restrictions of life at home, demands his father give him an advance on his inheritance. The son then goes into the world and blows the cash on “fast cars, faster women and recreational chemicals.” Predictably, the money runs out and when a famine strikes, the young man is left destitute and starving. He finally hits bottom, working for a pig farmer (the most distasteful kind of job for a pious Jew) and worse yet, yearning for the pigs’ food.
The image of the Prodigal Son, sitting miserably in the pig pen while he yearns for the slop, coming to himself as he remembers his father’s household (Luke 15:17), then rising and going back home (Luke 15:20), illustrate precisely the steps we take as human beings in our return to God. Let’s take them in order of the parable.
Having spent all our resources trying to master our own destinies, we hit bottom. Perhaps we get sick unexpectedly. Perhaps we lose a job. Perhaps some unexpected event impinges on our lives—a downturn in the economy, for instance… Regardless of the specifics, we find ourselves deprived of the ability to control our circumstances.
Sooner or later (and more often later than sooner, unfortunately), we come to recognize the need for aid beyond ourselves. We perceive within ourselves a hunger for something beyond the slop to which we have become accustomed.
The philosopher Charles Taylor describes this experience of longing in his book The Secular Age: “[it is] a distance, an absence, an exile, a seemingly irremediable incapacity ever to reach this place; an absence of power, a confusion.... We lose a sense of where the place of fullness is, even of what fullness could consist in, we feel we've forgotten what it would look like, or cannot believe in it anymore. But the misery of absence, of loss, is still there, indeed, it is in some ways even more acute.”
Having recognized our need for that “absent something” beyond ourselves—defined as “God”—we embark upon a process of bringing ourselves and our lives in all their brokenness back to Him. In Christian tradition, this is known as repentance, which is not merely feeling bad for our sins, but the continual act of returning our hearts and minds back to the One who is the source of our lives. This self-offering back to God begins in prayer and is sealed in the giving of ourselves to one another through concrete acts of love and service. In short, we commit to living as a servant in our father’s household.
This then is the lifelong human journey back to God, symbolized in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and highlighted in the period of Lent. And whether you celebrate the next forty days liturgically or not, it is certainly an appropriate time to explore for yourselves a simple question: “Where do I stand in this journey?”
If you are still partying with a pocketful of cash like the Prodigal Son in his heyday, consider that the party may end in the pig pen. If you have hit bottom and are sitting in the pig pen, consider the possibility of a better life beyond what you can attain for yourself. And if you are already on the way home, rehearsing your speech of repentance, consider that your Father may have been watching for you since you left, and is even now waiting to embrace you without conditions or expectations, waiting to put the ring of His authority on your finger and feed you with the food of joy, peace and eternal life.
Wherever you find yourself on the journey back to God this year, now is the time to come home.