The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week, and the Resurrection
Our Metropolis is most Grateful to Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis for kindly granting us permission to publish excerpts from his new book “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” Those interested in purchasing the text can do so by clicking HERE.
The Format of This Book
In the Orthodox Christian Church, the feast of the Resurrection is referred to as “Pascha”, rather than “Easter.” The date of Pascha is calculated each year so that it falls after the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, provided that the feast of Passover has occurred. This results many times in a difference in the dates that the Resurrection is celebrated between the Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations. Roughly 20% of the time, both the Orthodox Church and the other churches celebrate the Resurrection on the same day. About 20% of the time, the date is five weeks off. And the rest of the time, the date is one week off.
There is 19 Sunday (18 week) period of time each year in the Orthodox Church that surrounds the Feast of Pascha. The first three weeks, including four Sundays, are called the Triodion, or pre-Lenten period. The next forty days, which includes nearly six weeks and five Sundays, is called Great Lent. In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on a Monday called Clean Monday, rather than Ash Wednesday, as it does in the other churches. Great Lent ends on a Friday.
Holy Week follows Great Lent and it begins on a day called “Saturday of Lazarus.” Palm Sunday follows, along with Great and Holy Week. The Feast of the Resurrection is called Pascha and it begins a forty day period of celebration. After forty days, the church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension. Ten days later (fifty days after the Resurrection), the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost. The Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of All Saints. This ends this cycle of “movable feasts” (called this because their date moves every year) which surround the feast of Pascha.
The intention of this book is that it is to be read according to the Orthodox celebration of Lent, Holy Week, Pascha and Pentecost in a given year. The accompanying chart gives the dates of Pascha from 2017-2050. Where the chart says “Triodion begins” that is the day that you should begin reading this book. And there is one reflection for each day culminating in the feast of All Saints. If you are not an Orthodox Christian, there are two ways you can read this book. Either you can read it on the Orthodox calendar.
Opening the Gates
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know Him and the power of His Resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the Resurrection from the dead.
Tomorrow we will enter into a nineteen week period of feasts and fasts connected to the feast of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This yearly journey combines preparation, introspection, narrative, joy and purpose. There is a twenty-two day period of “Preparation” which is known as the “Triodion.” (Liturgically speaking, the Triodion is the period of time from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee through Holy Saturday, when the canon of the Orthros is limited to “three odes” instead of the usual nine, but in contemporary terms, the Triodion is a four Sunday period with the intervening weekdays included). During this period of time, we are supposed to prepare ourselves for Great Lent and the “great fast” which goes with it. Triodion should be a time of reflection and goal setting so that Lent can be a time of spiritual growth and change.
Great Lent begins on a Monday, called Clean Monday, and lasts forty days, including five Sundays. Great Lent is a period of introspection, marked by fasting, additional services, dark colors in church, and confession. Great Lent should be a time when we make positive changes in our spiritual lives. There is a saying that if you can do something for thirty days, it becomes a habit. So, making some spiritual changes to your life during Lent and doing them for forty days, should make for better habits once Lent is over. In the Orthodox Church, we don’t focus so much on giving things up or deprivation (only to get them back once Lent is over). Rather we should focus on sharpening our spiritual senses, making small changes and then striving to keep these changes in place once Lent is over. Holy Week is an eight-day journey that allows us to relive and relearn the events of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. We relive the narrative in scriptures and in hymns and in liturgical actions, like the Procession of the Crucified Christ, the un-nailing from the Cross, and the journey to the empty tomb.
The Paschal Season is one of joy. During this time we feast and celebrate the successful conclusion of the Lenten journey. We begin all things anew and strive to solidify the habits we began during Lent to become permanent parts of our life. The Paschal season lasts forty days, from Pascha until the feast of the Ascension. And the final three weeks of this journey highlights three feasts—the Holy Fathers, Pentecost and All Saints Day—that define our purpose as a church. We are the church of Pentecost, continually graced by the Holy Spirit. Like the Holy Fathers, we are all called to proclaim the truth of Christ. And the goal to all become Saints is the end of the journey.
During this period of time, the prayer team will be divided into five units. For the period of the Triodion, twenty-two days beginning tomorrow, we will examine the scriptures of Triodion and Great Lent, primarily the ones that are part of the Sunday readings on each of these nine Sundays, as well as the Saturday of the Souls and the Feast of the Annunciation. During the period of Great Lent, we will examine the scriptures of Holy Week that are part of the cycle of Holy Week services in the Orthodox Church. For the period of Holy Week itself, we will highlight ONE scripture reading from each day. During the Paschal Season, we will examine the post-Resurrection Gospels. And for the final couple of weeks after the Ascension, we will talk about Pentecost, life in the early church, and the goal of life in the present church. This unit will end on the Sunday of All Saints Day.
Each day in these reflections, you will find a scripture verse or verses, a reflection and at the end a prayer or hymn from one of the liturgical services of the season. The goal of the Prayer Team is to get you to pray. The goal of the Lenten and Paschal journey each year is to get you to grow. Spiritual growth and prayer go hand in hand. Thank you for reading these reflections. I hope you will take some spiritual benefit from the journey we are about to begin. But these reflections are not substitutions for prayer and scripture reading. They are meant to encourage and help you to pray more, and to help you understand the scriptures you are reading. I encourage you to read the scripture passages that surround the selected verses each day.
I humbly ask your prayers on these reflections and on this journey that we are about to begin. I humbly offer mine in return.
Today’s hymns are chanted on all nine Sundays of Triodion and Lent, beginning tomorrow. They remind us of God’s judgment, but also His great mercy. As we open the gates and begin our journey to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, we must open the gates to our souls for a period of examination and growth, so that when we proclaim that Christ is Risen from the dead, we do so not only because we’ve marked another year of time, but because we’ve made the journey of repentance, the journey back to God our Father.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life, for early in the morning my spirit hastens to Your holy temple bringing the temple of my body all defiled. But as one compassionate, cleanse me, I pray, by Your loving-kindness and mercy.
Both now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Theotokos, for I have befouled my soul with shameful sins and I heedlessly squandered all of my life’s resources. By your intercession deliver me from every uncleanness.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy; and according to the abundance of Your compassion, blot out my transgression.
When I ponder in my wretchedness on the many terrible things that I have done, I tremble for that fearful day, the Day of Judgement. But trusting in the mercy of Your compassion, like David I cry out to You, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy.
(From the Orthros on all Sundays of the Triodion and Great Lent, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Let the journey begin!
PART ONE—THE LENTEN JOURNEY
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
Time for a Check Up
Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness.
2 Timothy 3:10
(Epistle on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)
Depending on what kind of car you drive, every 3,000-5,000 miles you need to take it in for an oil change. I remember an OLD commercial where a car dealership advertised a 19-point inspection for $19. Yes, that had to have been a long time ago! And I remember going to the car dealership and the mechanic looking at his checklist of the 19 points and telling me how my car checked out—a little low on brake fluid, tire pressure good, etc. The period of the Triodion, which begins today, is a time for us to evaluate ourselves on a spiritual scale. Saint Paul, in his Epistle to Timothy, offers us a good “7-point inspection” of our spiritual lives. So, as an exercise, take a few moments and evaluate yourself on these seven points. Perhaps even a scale of 1 to 10, rate how you are doing:
My teaching—what kind of Christian example are you setting for others? Whether you actively are “teaching” about Christ verbally, we all “teach” by example. What kind of example of Christianity are you modeling for your “students”—your spouse, children, friends, anyone else you encounter on a regular basis?
My conduct—am I living my life according to the tenets of Christianity and the teachings of Christ?
My aim in life—Do I live with a sense of purpose? Is God the source and center of my life? Is my aim in life to please Him, or to please myself?
My faith—I’m now a year older than I was last year when we celebrated Pascha. Has my faith grown in the past year? Am I excited about my faith? Or stagnant?
My patience—this sin trips up most people on a daily basis. How is your patience on a daily basis? In control? Easily lost?
My love—Every commandment that God ever gave us comes under the umbrella of “love.” Fear, anger, lust, sadness, all of these things are the antithesis of love. Joy, chastity, confidence and gratitude are all manifestations of love. Which set of words describe your life more at present—fear, anger, lust, sadness? Or joy, chastity, confidence and gratitude?
My steadfastness—The journey of life, for most of us thankfully, is long. Along the way, we go through periods of joy and confidence. This is true for life in general and also for faith. There are times when we feel we are getting ahead, other times when we feel like we are falling behind, and other times we are just standing still. IF YOU ARE READING THIS MESSAGE, give yourself at least a FIVE for steadfastness. Steadfastness is being in the game, showing up to play. It doesn’t necessarily mean winning!
Going back to the example of the 19-point car inspection, once the inspection is complete, then a diagnosis is made and then the work is done to correct the problem. Finally, the car owner leaves, happy that his or her car is in good working condition. Triodion, this period of preparation for Lent, is a period of inspection of our relationship with Christ, with our spiritual life. Lent is the period where we correct the problem. So that on Pascha, we can reclaim our full sense of joy, knowing that our hearts and souls are in good working condition.
So, start evaluating. And if the evaluation is not good, don’t despair. That’s why we have this period of time on our calendar each year, to repair and renew. The most important thing in any evaluation is honesty. So, make an honest evaluation of yourself. Then look at the end of the process—a fully repaired you. And then start to tackle the work in between.
The Pharisee, who justified himself by boasting about his works, O Lord, You condemned; but You justified the Publican who was modest, and who with sighs prayed for expiation. For You do not accept boastful thoughts, but hearts that are contrite You do not despise. Therefore we, too, in humility fall down before You, who suffered for us. Grant us absolution and great mercy. (Doxastikon from the Orthros of the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, Trans by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Make an evaluation today!
Note: There is no fasting this week. Because the Pharisee boasted about his fasting, we abstain from fasting during the week following this Gospel reading.
Monday of the Prodigal Son
He Who Humbles Himself Will Be Exalted
Jesus said this parable: Two men went down to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Gospel on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)
Your motivation for just about anything you do in life can be separated into two categories—It’s either all about God. Or it’s all about you. If it’s all about YOU, we would call that “pride.” If it’s all about GOD, we’d call that “humility.” What if it’s all about “the other guy,” doing something for someone else? Well, that actually fits under the “it’s all about God” category, because the Lord tells us that in helping our brethren, we honor Him. (Matthew 25:31-46, which we will reflect on shortly).
It’s not that the Pharisee was a bad person—in fact, he was doing a lot of good things. Fasting and tithing are good things, and he was doing them. So, what was his sin? Why would God say that he went back to his home unjustified? Well, there are at least three things he was doing wrong—He was praying “with himself.” There is a conflict right there. We “pray” to the Lord. To pray with oneself is to take the role of the Lord, the one who receives our prayers, and give it to yourself. Praying with oneself makes one “his own god.” Praying with oneself makes prayer all about us, and not about God. Secondly, he was boasting—“look at me, I fast, I tithe.” Fasting and tithing are good things, but as we will learn shortly, we shouldn’t be sounding the trumpet when doing either of these things. If we expect recognition for our fasting and our tithing, then it is hard to argue that we are doing these things for God and not for our own sense of glory. And third, he was judging the tax collector, as unworthy of God’s mercy and redemption, and also as a man who was not capable of repenting.
There was a moment in God’s temple, when this man made himself god. Because he made his good deeds all about himself. And in that moment, when he was so confident that he was leaving no room for God to work in his life, God didn’t listen to his “prayer.” The publican/tax collector, on the other hand, we do not know what kind of life he had. Suffice it to say he probably was a thief. He certainly wasn’t the person you wanted to greet at your door. Extortion and blackmail were probably a regular part of his life. But there was a moment in God’s temple, when this man realized that what he was doing with his life, was all about him, and none of it was about God. And in that moment, when he was so low he couldn’t even raise his eyes towards God, he pleaded for God’s mercies and God exalted him. Humility isn’t doing everything wrong and coming to God to make it all better. Humility isn’t acting pious and expressing self-loathing. Humility doesn’t mean you can’t have confidence in yourself. And it doesn’t mean to not be grateful for the blessings in your life.
Humility puts God first in all things. Humility makes it all about God, and not about us. Humility is what St. John the Baptist was talking about when he said “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Humility means “more of God, less about us.” Humility means making it about Him, and not about us. And when one strives to be humble, his prayer becomes the prayer of the Publican, because he realizes that he needs God’s mercies in order to overcome his shortcomings. The prayer of the Publican, “God have mercy on me a sinner,” is the root of the “Jesus Prayer,” which says “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In Orthodox theology, we are taught to pray this prayer as often as possible, so that our sense of God’s greatness and our need for His mercies are constantly in our minds. Indeed, in the moment we are asking for His mercies, it is impossible to feel pride and make judgments on others. In the moment AFTER we offer this prayer, it is possible. But in the moment we are offering a prayer for God’s mercies, we are right in sync with God. We are making it about Him. This is why we need to ask for God’s mercies so often, so that we can live in His mercy, and not in our own sense of self, so that we can make life about Him, and not about us.
Recognizing the difference between the Publican and the Pharisee, O my soul, hate the prideful voice of the one, yet emulate the contrite prayer of the other, and cry out, “O God be gracious to me, who have sinned, and have mercy on me.” (From the Praises of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, Trans. by Fr. Serphaim Dedes)
Seek after God’s mercies today, and in so doing, you will find humility.
Tuesday of the Prodigal Son
Your Body Belongs to the Lord
The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. . .Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?. . .Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? . . .So glorify God in your body.
I Corinthians 6:13, 15, 19, 20
(Epistle on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son)
Can you imagine if you went into church one morning with a can of spray paint and started desecrating the walls of the church? If you sprayed over the icons, if you wrote bad language in spray paint on the doors of the church? If you took a chain saw to the pews, and set fire to the carpet? Most of us can’t conceive of such sacrilege. We love our church building. We appreciate its beauty. If you walked into a vandalized building, you’d wonder, where did all the beauty go?
Our bodies are temples. The Holy Spirit resides in each of us. When God created man, we read in Genesis 2:7, “He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In other words, God put His Spirit into each of us, in the form of our souls, and this is how we become human beings. And during our lifetime, we are supposed to feed our souls and prepare them for the day when our earthly lives are over, when our souls will separate from our bodies and go back to God for judgment. Our bodies are the “temples” in which our souls live.
We desecrate our bodies when we fill our minds with hateful thoughts, and our mouths with hateful speech. We neglect our bodies when we fill them with bad food and when we are inactive and indifferent to others. We honor our bodies when we maintain good hygiene, good diet, when we exercise, and when we love and serve others. Then our temples are in pristine condition.
In the Epistle of James, we read that “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights.” (James 1:17) Therefore, our bodies are gifts from God and should be honored as such. We are supposed to honor God with our bodies—with what we see, what we hear, what we say and what we do. If we fill our eyes with images of violence and lust, if our ears are filled with hateful thoughts, if our mouths are filled with filthy language and if our hands are used for hurting and taking, then the temple of our bodies will be desecrated, as if spray-painting our church and destroying its contents. Ideally we want to fill our eyes with images of beauty, our ears with sounds of encouragement, our mouths with words of praise for God and encouragement of our fellow man, and our hands to be used for helping and giving.
The gap between what is and what should be is called sin. For sin is not only “missing the mark,” and doing the wrong thing, sin is failure to do the right thing. Indifference, for example, is a sin. The way for closing that gap is called repentance. And this is the theme on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son—closing that gap through repentance. The theme of Lent is the cleaning of our bodies, our temples, so that they shine with the radiance of the most beautiful Cathedral.
The Rev. Dr. Nicon Patrinacos, a Greek Orthodox priest of blessed memory, wrote a beautiful quote that I have always held close to my heart:
Whenever I think of a church Cathedral, I find myself thinking of the Cathedral of one’s own soul, in which he, in absolute solitude, and face to face with God, lives the most earnest and most decisive moment of his life. The Cathedral encloses within its splendid architectural lines something more than a physical achievement. In fact, if the walls and the art of this edifice could speak, I am sure that they would voice the presence here and now of the joys and sorrows of our hearts as well as the upward flying of our souls. They would attest to the fact that this building is a living entity, heart-beating and breathing, a treasure that is becoming constantly augmented as we grow in the life of Christ. (From the 1970 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Yearbook)
While Fr. Nicon was referring to a physical church structure, his referral to the “Cathedral of one’s own soul” has always struck a chord with me. As a priest, I spend a great deal of time making sure that the church I serve is clean, that the altar is always prepared and immaculate in its appearance. Most of us spend time cleaning our homes, our cars, our yards, our clothes. We want them to be immaculate and spotless as well. Patrinacos compares a Cathedral to a living body, heart-beating and breathing as it grows in the life of Christ. Saint Paul encourages us to see our bodies as Cathedrals, with souls that are beautiful, immaculate and spotless. As we are vigilant with our earthly cares, let us remember to take care of our bodies, our temples, as well.
The cry of the Prodigal I offer to You, O Lord: I have sinned before Your eyes, O good one; I have squandered the wealth of the gifts You gave me, but receive me as I repent, O Savior, and save me. (From the Praises of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Keep your “temple” clean today!
Wednesday of the Prodigal Son
He Came to Himself—The Critical Moment
But when he came to himself, he said “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father.
(Gospel on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son)
One of the most important stories in the New Testament is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A man had two sons and the younger of the two sons went to his father and asked him for his share of his inheritance. An inheritance is something you only get when your father dies, so in asking for the inheritance, it was as if he was wishing his father was dead. An inheritance is also a gift. It is not purchased but given from parent to child, in this case from father to son. The father gave the inheritance freely, even though the son had treated the father shamefully.
The son took the inheritance, went to a far country, and in short order, he wasted the inheritance on loose living. When someone has a lot of money, generally they have a lot of “friends.” And when someone has no money, there are no “friends,” because there is no money to have a good time. So, all of his new-found “friends” abandoned the son, who found himself hungry and alone. In order to not die, he got a job tending swine and he ate the food of the swine, because it was either that, or perish from starvation.
There was another option, however. And one day, the son “came to himself” and realized that his father’s servants lived better than he was living. And he made the decision to go back to his father and not only ask forgiveness but ask to be a servant, rather than a son.
What is the difference between a son and a servant? A son is entitled to not only inheritance, but to his father’s love. The son, in coming to himself, wanted to ask his father for neither inheritance nor love. He knew he was not deserving of either.
The meaning of this parable is this—the inheritance is our faith, the gift of salvation purchased through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. It is a gift bestowed to all those who believe. When we sin, we are the Prodigal Son, for in the moment we sin, we are wasting our inheritance, we are squandering our faith. When we sin, we separate ourselves from God. He doesn’t separate from us. WE are the ones who leave and go to the “faraway land.”
If you know this story well, you know that the father quickly forgave the son. We’ll be talking about that in the next reflection. However, that was not the key moment in the story. The key moment was when the son “came to himself” and realized that he needed to go back to his father, to ask his forgiveness and to offer to be his servant. This “coming to” moment is called repentance. Repentance means “a change of direction,” and a “recognition that one has missed the mark.” Repentance, for each of us, is realizing where we are missing the mark, in relation to where we are, versus where God tells us to be.
Years ago, when NASA sent astronauts to the moon, the journey took several days and covered nearly 240,000 miles. At one or two points during the journey, it was necessary for the spacecraft to burn its engine for a few seconds, a maneuver called a “course correction.” This made sure that the spacecraft was on target to reach the moon, and not careen into space and certain disaster.
Repentance is our way of “correcting course” in our spiritual lives, to get back on target. And this is done in the same way the Prodigal Son made his correction. First you must “come to yourself” and realize you are off the mark. And then you must make the journey back.
I revolted senselessly out of Your fatherly glory; I have squandered sinfully all of the riches You gave me. Hence to you, using the Prodigals’ words, I cry out, I have sinned before You, merciful loving Father. O receive me in repentance, I pray, and treat me as one of Your hired hands. (Kontakion, Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Think about where you are in relationship to the “target” today!
Thursday of the Prodigal Son
One Happy Father
But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But 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.
(Gospel on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son)
Today’s reflection focuses on the father, in the story of the Prodigal Son. How sad the father must have been to have his younger son, his baby, ask for his inheritance. How sad the father must have been to see his younger son walk away from his home. I imagine the father sitting on his porch, head in his hands, crying for his son. I imagine him looking down the long road wondering if he will ever see his son coming back bounding toward the house.
Yet the father didn’t stop the son. He didn’t take away his freedom. He didn’t send a search party after him. He waited and he hoped that his son would come back to him.
And then one day, the son appeared. He must have been dirty and haggard—he had no money, no place to lay his head, probably hadn’t had a shower. Here the boy had left rich and excited and was returning penniless and shamed. Not only had the son brought shame on himself, he had also shamed his father.
If you pay close attention to this story, you will find a most wonderful detail that is very important and often overlooked. We know that the son was returning home with a plan, to ask his father’s forgiveness and to beg to be treated as a servant. But, we are told, while the son was still a distance away from the house, the father saw him and was filled with compassion, and he ran towards his wayward son and embraced him and kissed him. His first reaction was one of joy, not anger. He didn’t demand to know what had happened. He didn’t demand repayment on the inheritance. He embraced him and kissed him.
As I imagine this parable in my mind, I imagine that the son almost had to pry his father off of him and say “wait, I have something to say—I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as a hired servant.” And it’s as if the father wouldn’t even hear what his son is saying. He didn’t tell his son that he is disappointed, or put the son on probation. He certainly didn’t treat him as a servant. He ordered a robe to be brought, a ring to be put on his finger and shoes on his feet and for a feast to be thrown in his honor. He was so happy that his son came back. The son’s apology was sincere, no doubt, but the father’s joy is what ruled the day.
I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about this parable when I hear a confession. It’s not that the sins people confess are not relevant, because they most certainly are. But as a priest, hearing the sins and the pains of the people, my first reaction when someone comes to confession is always one of joy, that one of God’s children has come back. I try to remember the father of the Prodigal Son, and to share his joy that his child who was lost has now been found.
And this image, of the kind and forgiving father is the image we should all have of our Lord. He waits for us to make our way back. He waits to embrace us and welcome us home. Our burden is to make the journey. We don’t have to wonder what His reaction will be. It will be one of great joy. Jesus tells us that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7) It took courage for the son to make the journey back, not knowing how it would end for him. For us, we need merely effort to make the journey back. We know how it will end. Our Heavenly Father will embrace us and forgive us. All we have to do is come back.
The theme of Great Lent is the Prodigal Son, and making our way back to the Father. Why is there such joy on Pascha? Because we celebrate not only Christ’s Resurrection but we celebrate all those who have made it back to God. As we prepare for Lent in this period of the Triodion, our job today is to think on how we’ve missed the mark. The journey of Lent is the journey back to God the Father. And Pascha is the celebration, when everything begins anew in the Light of the Resurrected Christ for all of God’s children who have made the journey back. When we come to the Lord in repentance, when we ask for forgiveness and seek to be His servants, this is when He restores us as His sons and daughters. It takes humility to realize you’ve missed the mark. It takes repentance to make the journey back. Humility and repentance lead to forgiveness and restoration. And these are what lead to true joy.
Like the Prodigal Son, I too, have come, O compassionate one; I have spent my whole life in a foreign land; I have squandered the wealth that You have given me, O Father. Receive me as I repent, O God, and have mercy on me. (From the Praises on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Identify at least one way in which you are “missing the mark” and start mapping out a way to “come back.”
Friday of the Prodigal Son
I Never Left! Not True
[The Older Son] answered his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; 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!” And he said to him, “Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
(Gospel on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son)
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there are three main characters—the younger son, who made a mess of his life, but then returned and repented; the father, who acquiesced to the wishes of his younger son, gave him his share of the inheritance, and who was ready to forgive and restore his son when he came home; and the older son, the one “who never left.”
The Parable leads us to surmise that the father was a farmer, as the older son was working out in the field. Presumably, the younger son was sharing the burden of the work prior to his leaving. The older son had plenty of reason to be angry at his brother—his brother had first and foremost, insulted their father. Secondly, he had cut his father’s wealth in half by taking his inheritance early. Third, he had left the older brother to do the work of both brothers, so he had increased his labor. As if this wasn’t enough, when the younger brother came home, the father not only forgave him, but threw a party in his honor. Yet, when we read the parable, it is the older son who we end up with a bad picture of, not the younger son.
So, what is the lesson here? First, when the older brother said to his father “I never disobeyed your command,” that was not a true statement. No child can ever say that he never disobeyed his father. I was a relatively good child, but I wasn’t perfect. I’m sure there were plenty of times I disobeyed my father. And if, in the Parable, the Father represents GOD our Father, then to say we never disobey God is not a true statement for any of us. In fact, it is the height of arrogance.
In some sense, we are all the Prodigal Son. We all “waste” our inheritance when we sin. We all “go away” to a “far country” when we sin because we estrange ourselves from God. Like the Prodigal Son, however, we hopefully have moments where we “come to ourselves” and repent, we come back to God. And God our Father forgives us and restores us when we come back to Him.
So, when are we like the older son? There are two instances—first, when we are so arrogant as to think we never do wrong. This puts us in the same place as the Pharisee, in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. It fails to show humility.
And second, when we look on those “who come back” with contempt, rather than joy. This happens more than we think. When a person makes a mistake and owns up for it, we sometimes think about retribution and punishment before we think about forgiveness. When we feel that a person has been too easily forgiven and hasn’t been thoroughly punished, we tend to become indignant with them. We fail to show mercy.
There is nothing wrong with the loyalty of the older son. The fact that he was obedient to his father, at least most of the time, was a good thing. But no one is obedient all the time. And when a lost soul has returned home, we should be rejoicing.
In practical terms, periodically we see someone come back to church after a long absence. What is our reaction? Are we contemptuous, like “where have you been?” Or are welcoming, without interrogating? How many times in life does someone who has wronged you try to make amends, perhaps even after a long time—it probably doesn’t happen often but it does happen. Are we easy to forgive and easy to entreat, like the Father in the story? Or are we filled with anger and contempt, like the older son?
If God our Father is ready and happy to restore us, we should be happy to restore one another. After all, no one has sinned against me MORE than I have sinned against God. So, if I expect God to forgive ALL of my sins, then I should be willing to forgive the sins of others. And I should rejoice, rather than resent, when someone “comes back” and “makes it right.”
I have exhausted the wealth of my father’s holdings, and have consumed them; I have become destitute, dwelling in the land of wicked citizens. No longer able to bear their company, 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. (From the Praises on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
See the good in people today!