This weekend we have had a tale of two families. Yesterday was the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. This feast focuses, of course, on the ritual purification of the Virgin Mary prescribed in the Law as well as the offering of the first born child to the Lord, also prescribed in the Law, as a remembrance of the plague which delivered the Israelites from Egypt. While we celebrated these events in the feast we also see the small family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in action. Knowing the miraculous nature of the birth of Christ, still they humbly come to the temple in order to fulfill the Law. Immediately after this Joseph takes the Child and His Mother to Egypt in obedience to the command of the Lord so that He might escape the slaughter of the innocents that Herod was about to initiate. The Virgin Mary places herself completely in the care of her betrothed protector, the Righteous Joseph, and submits to his hasty leading her away from everything that was familiar to her and traveling to a foreign and even hostile land. Joseph for his part sets aside his own life and does all that he can do in order to care for the Virgin and her Child on this long and arduous journey. When we look at this family we see a picture of perfect internal harmony and peace. When we ask ourselves, what is it that brings about this situation we can see one primary quality in this family – each person is wholly dedicated to serving God and wholly in submission to the will of God. It is this perfect love of God that creates this harmony and peace within the family.
In the Gospel today we see a different family in the parable of the prodigal son. This family is not an example of perfect peace and harmony – this is a family broken by sin. The youngest son, through the sins of rebellion and disobedience, has disrupted the harmony of the family. By insisting on the fulfillment of his own desires, by turning his back on his father and brother, he has brought about a broken family. As we see he goes off to live according to his own desires and will and even though the father and elder son remain at home, still the family is incomplete. The elder son takes on the duties abandoned by his younger brother and the father is torn by his mourning for that which he has lost. The family is broken.
But this broken family can be healed – and it is this healing that is the core message of the parable. The younger son, having wasted himself and his resources falls into complete destitution. He sees his own error and resolves to return to his father and ask forgiveness. Even as he approaches the family home, though he is still afar off, the father sees his son returning and runs to meet him, and before the son can ask forgiveness he is embraced by the father who proclaims a feast to mark the return of his son that was lost. But the elder son, returning from his labors and seeing the feast, becomes angry and refuses to enter the house – unwilling to forgive his brother. And just as with the younger son, when the father sees that the elder son has separated himself he goes out and embraces this son as well to bring him back into harmony with the family.
In the actions of the sons and of the father we see what it is that destroys the harmony of the family and how it is that the family is healed. First let us consider the younger son. His disobedience and rebellion originally was what wounded the family. His lack of love for his father and his brother which was expressed in his selfish behavior brought discord to the family. Each one of us is infected with this same self-love, this same ego-centric selfishness and it is this that brings stress to all our relationships (whether in a family or with friends and co-workers or even among simple acquaintances). The first place that we must look when we see discord and offense in our lives is to ourselves. How have we, through our own selfishness, brought such a situation about? As we will see shortly, we cannot look at others and judge their “selfishness” – rather we must keep our attention on ourselves. What have I done to offend others, how have I been self-willed, self-absorbed, and selfish?
The younger son also shows us the first step in healing the broken family – repentance. When he sees his own sin, then he resolves to ask forgiveness and leaves behind the sinful life that he had once led. To approach another person and to ask forgiveness requires humility and humility is the mother of all the virtues. If we would heal our lives and the life of our family we must first and foremost humble ourselves, admit our own sins and ask forgiveness. Here is the first step toward healing – confession of sin and repentance which is born out of humility.
Now we move to the father and we see two great qualities that we can imitate to facilitate this healing. The father first of all mourned for the loss of his younger son. He watched for his return every day, otherwise he would not have seen or recognized his son’s return from so far away. When someone has offended us, it is our “natural” fallen reaction to cut off the person who has offended us, even to become angry with them. But the father here did not do this, rather he mourned for his lost son, sharing the pain of the separation and hoping for reconciliation and restoration. When we are offended by someone, as Christians, we should imitate the father here and mourn for the rift that has opened between ourselves and the one by whom we were offended. Rather than push even the memory of that person away, we should instead share the pain of the separation, and reach out to find the means of restoration. This is completely against our fallen nature – but it is in complete harmony with the divine nature of our Lord who “while we were yet sinners” loved us and gave His life for us so that we might be reconciled.
Also see the father’s forgiveness. This forgiveness coupled with the son’s repentance is the heart of the healing. Now note that the son’s repentance did not cause or even bring forth the father’s forgiveness. Before the son could even speak – while he was yet afar off – the father’s heart moved to forgiveness and he ran to embrace him. How different this is than how we often act. Even if we decide to forgive someone we wait to offer that forgiveness until they come and ask to be forgiven. We do not freely offer our forgiveness but rather only give it at a price. We want to see the other person “admit they were wrong”, we want them to “suffer” a little and to humiliate themselves by apologizing. But the father in this parable did not do this – he did not wait for his son to come and repent, he may not have even known his son’s intent. He did not require his son to suffer, but immediately clothed him, put a ring on his finger (a sign of membership in the family) and shoes on his feet. He proclaimed a great feast to celebrate his son’s return – all of this before the son could even open his mouth. This is how our forgiveness should look – freely given, unconditional and without price.
This union of repentance and forgiveness brings about joy. If you want joy in your family then strive to practice repentance and be the first to offer forgiveness. This is what brings about joy.
Now the eldest son is neglected until the very end of this parable and when he hears of his brother’s return he is faced with a choice: he can enter into the festival and share in the joy, or he can judge and condemn his brother and refuse to forgive. In the parable we see that the first response of the elder brother is to refuse to forgive and instead of joy he suffers anger, envy, condemnation and is himself cut off from the family. When we refuse to forgive others, then this too is our own result. We lose out on the joy of forgiveness and instead are sunk in the mire of envy, anger and resentment. But the father seeing his elder son in difficult straights reaches out to him as well, seeking to encourage his son on the path of repentance and seeking to draw him into the joy of the family.
Now all of this can indeed be about our families, because as we all know families are difficult. There is always strife and offense and hardship – but that can be overcome by forgiveness. Our families can be filled with joy no matter how difficult things may become simply by practicing repentance and forgiveness. But this goes far beyond just our immediate family, this applies also to the family of the Church. This parish, every parish, is a family and we all constantly are being offended and feeling stressed and causing others pain. It is simply the nature of our fallen human relationships. But here in the Church we are called to become something greater than our fallen nature allows. We are called to set aside the “old man” of our sinful life and put on instead the “new man” of life in Christ. One of the important ways that we do this is to humble ourselves, to repent and ask forgiveness of one another (sometime even asking forgiveness for things that we were unaware were sins). And then the other element of this transformation into the likeness of Christ is to forgive, freely, pre-emptively, without condition or cost. Let us forgive one another even as our Lord Jesus Christ has forgiven us. His forgiveness has planted the seeds of joy – let our repentance and forgiveness give those seeds a place to take root, grow and blossom so that we might live in the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today we start a journey. That great journey toward our Lord’s Pascha, toward the Resurrection of our Lord and His defeat of our great enemy, death. We begin this journey with joy, with anticipation and excitement. Right? Or do we, rather, begin this journey with dread? Do we begin it with sadness, or anxiety, or wishing that it could be delayed just a little bit longer? We love Pascha, but we find Great Lent boring. There are long Church services ahead of us. The foods that we will live on for a month and a half are not the ones we really want to eat. We will try to avoid mindless entertainment. We find this time exhausting, we find ourselves quarreling with others more, and we are often left wondering why we even bother trying because it seems that we make no progress.
But prayer, fasting, vigils, and almsgiving are not supposed to be punishments. We are supposed to find joy in them because we are supposed to find Christ in them. It might seem counter-intuitive to think that depriving ourselves can bring joy, but that is why we deprive ourselves. When our bellies are full, when our days are filled with countless activities, when we focus on our earthly treasures, we cannot find God. When we can’t find something that we are looking for, we know that throwing away junk, putting things in their proper places, and looking in a careful manner will help.
So we try to throw away all the things in this life that keep us from finding God, we put the things that must remain in our lives in their proper place where they are not in the way of God, and we search for him diligently in our lives. If we do these things we will have joy.
So how do we do these things? First we throw away the bad. Most of us, even when we are really trying to live a Christian life, find that in between fasts certain bad behaviors creep in. Perhaps we slip into mindless eating, drinking too much, idle talking, playing games to escape reality, staring aimlessly at our phones, or laziness about prayer. This is a time to break from these things. To say that from now on (and not just until Lent ends) I will not do these things. Set those things aside, but don’t just leave a vacuum in its place. Instead of eating mindlessly or drinking too much, eat and drink with thanksgiving. When you feel hunger or thirst, which for many of us is an uncommon feeling, thank God for the opportunity to fast as even He fasted. Ask Him to give you a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, ask Him to fill you with the heavenly bread and the streams of living water which satisfy eternally.
Instead of idle talking, learn to pray in silence, or to speak about edifying things. Discuss the scriptures or lives of the Saints for the day with your family or friends, or do a lap around your prayer rope.
Instead of entertainment to escape reality, face reality. Spend time visiting those who need visitation, minister to the needs of those around you. Be present in this life in a way that shows the love of God to others. And part of facing reality is facing God, turning to Him in prayer. If you cannot pray for a long time, at least pray well. Allow yourself to be still for a few minutes before prayer to let your mind calm down. When you pray, allow the words that leave your mouth to come into your own ears and touch your heart before moving on. Try to pray in an unhurried manner. Bring your struggles with the fast before God. Confess to Him your hunger, your irritability, your boredom.
Having cleared away all the things that keep us from God, we must also put the important things in our lives in their proper places. Our spouses, our children, our friends and loved ones, our jobs, and various obligations do not need to be cast aside so that we can seek God. But what we often do is make all of those things our first priority and God gets pushed down the list. Make morning and evening prayer a priority. Instead of worrying about breakfast, taking care of all our daily grooming, checking in on facebook and email, and then seeing if we have time for morning prayers, wake up a few minutes early, say your prayers, do the things you have to do, and then notice that most of what you didn’t get to wasn’t all that important anyway.
Instead of doing all of our chores, watching a little tv, checking in on facebook and email (notice a trend here?) and then seeing if there is time for prayer before we pass out for the night, say prayers while you still have energy, then do all the things that you need to do. It is rare that we find ourselves too tired for the things we want to do, but we often find that we are too tired for prayers.
Instead of trying to figure out how you are going to fit all of the Church services into your very busy schedule of activities, try to figure out how you are going to fit all of your activities into a very busy schedule of Church services. Much of what we do in a week is not as necessary as we think it is but when we prioritize our social calendar over the Church calendar, we miss opportunities to find God in our lives.
Our spouses and our children are a priority that is exceptionally hard to prioritize properly. We should not neglect them, but neither should we worship them above God. Seek to plant God in those relationships. Talk to them about what this time is for. Pray with them. Show the love of God toward them. This should be a time for enriching these relationships, not destroying them. But it can put a strain on our relationships if we are careless. Seek forgiveness regularly, pray for them when you are not praying with them, don’t forget to give them your time and your attention outside of Church.
Our jobs present a particular challenge in that they are often not flexible and most of us cannot afford to lose a job. Consider your duties to your job as a service to your family and to God Himself. Conduct yourself in your job as if the Lord was your boss, your co-worker, your subordinate. When work must be the priority, make God your priority while working.
Finally, having cleaned out what is detrimental to our spiritual lives, having prioritized our spiritual life over the rest of our life, we must systematically seek God in this Lenten fast. We do that in prayer, we do that in fasting, and we do that in almsgiving, but more than anything, we do that in the sacramental life of the Church. The Holy Mysteries are where we encounter the grace of God, where God gives Himself to us directly. Make confession regularly -- with preparation and genuine contrition. If possible, receive the Body and Blood of Christ each time that it is offered. When we celebrate Holy Unction, prepare yourself that you might receive this great healing of soul and body.
In the parable this morning, we heard about two men. The one deprived himself of all of the things he was required to. He fasted as we often fast, giving up the things and following the rules the best we can, but without humility and still weighed down by all the things we haven’t given up. The other, stood empty before God and asked only for whatever blessings the Lord had for him. in his humility he recognized that he had nothing to offer to God of worth, and asked of God only mercy. Such a man will receive a great reward. Don’t look at the fast as a chance to follow the required rules. Look at it as an opportunity to strip away all the bad habits that you know you engage in daily. Put God as the priority in the center of your life and make any relationships you value be filled with His grace through you. And having emptied yourself of all that is unprofitable, having put everything else in its place, seek for the grace of God to fill you up, that on that great day of Pascha, you may have already experienced the joy of the Resurrection in the raising up of your whole life to Him.