Archpastoral Homily for the Lenten Season of 2010
In this season of the Great Fast, it is the duty of all Christians to enter into the Holy Mystery of Confession. It is not the only thing that we must do in Lent to prepare for the Feast of Pascha: but it is surely a necessary preparation for that Great and Holy Feast of Feasts. There is no way for us to feel the joy and peace of the Resurrection Festival without first going through preparation of Confession: one must climb the mountain path before he can enjoy the view from the mountain top.
Confession must be done the right way, in the right manner. It cannot be easy. Confession that is done as routine is simply not Confession. By its very nature, Confession is difficult. If it were not so hard, then Confession would never have been required. It would never have been recognized as "Lenten" and "penitential" or "ascetic."
You and I both know that Confession must hurt before it makes us feel better. We both know that it is not enough to say that we ate meat on Fridays … that we did not fulfill our church obligations or missed Liturgy. We both know that it is the easiest thing to do, during Confession, to talk about other people and how they made us so angry or so depressed, or how other people keep us from prayer or going to church.
You and I both know that when we make Confession "easy," we are not confessing at all. When we talk about other people, we are trying to confess their sins, and not our own. When we take the easy path of confessing the sins of other people, we turn a blind eye to our own. We become judgmental, instead of penitential. The two attitudes cannot co-exist … not in the same heart.
Confession is a hard, hard thing, and it is about one person, and one person alone who is opening his eyes and waking up … and looking around and finding out that he is in the wrong place in life … and that he desperately needs to go home … and to go home, that one person needs to come to his senses, to return back to his soul, to change his mind.
And that person is you. And that person is me.
Every single Holy Mystery of the Orthodox Church is deeply rooted in Holy Scripture, and Confession is no exception to this rule. There are many Biblical moments of this sort of recognition of wrong, and this point of decision to turning around. There is King David, who came to grief over his adultery with Bathsheba. There is King Manasseh, who wept bitter tears over his immorality and pagan idolatry. There is the Apostle Peter, of course, who groveled for three days in the darkness after the Crucifixion, because he denied his Lord three times.
But the singular, ultimate icon of the Holy Mystery of Confession and Reconciliation is the Prodigal Son.
You know the story well, and so do I. We have heard it every year in the Orthodox Church for decades. We know all the facts by heart. We have grown almost too familiar with the story. It has become part of the surroundings, and, I wonder, just another phase of the yearly routine.
But this story is hard and dangerous, just like Confession. If you enter into it, with eyes wide open and a heart that is exposed to the heat of the sun, like ice melting on a Spring day, then you cannot help being changed. You will look up and around, and your mind willturn.
You will repent: and God knows, as we all know, that repentance is the thing that our sinful selves fear the most. At the same time, repentance is the thing that our sinful minds needthe most.
I want to look especially at the very moment when the Prodigal Son shook his head and woke up from his drunken hangover. I want to look at that instant when he opened the eyes of his mind and realized where he was, and what he had become.
You remember the story. You remember the young boy who prematurely demanded his full inheritance from his father. You remember how he took all the money and traveled as far as he could get away from his father and his home. You remember how he spent all his money in pleasure and comfort.
He left no passion untouched. He left no sin unexplored. He experimented with every form of depravity and decadence. He threw his money around and became popular among the drinkers, the dancers, the drug-takers and the adulterers, the fornicators and the celebrities, the actors and actresses, the rich and the famous. It seemed that the party would never end, and they could dance all night, and the wine flowed freely and the laughter and the lust went on and on until the morning sun rose up and revealed the polluted infestation of sin.
It was on such a morning that the famine came, and the young boy's funds dried up in the drought. A recession hit and the banks failed. The blue chip stocks took a nose dive, and the stock brokers and the accountants and all the good-time drinking buddies of the Prodigal Son took their money and ran.
No one was there to lend him a dime. No one, in the far country, gave him even a slice of bread, and the once laughing Prodigal Son now began to weep and despair.
He had squandered away the inheritance of his human nature. Once he was able to think clearly. Once, he was able to control his emotions and make good decisions. Once he was able to love and accept being loved. Once upon a time, long ago, he was friend to the animals and to the trees and fields, and he was able to look up at the sky and give thanks to the God of all. Once, he was able to speak in truth and in love. Once, he was able to pray without ceasing and to pray and move mountains.
These were the riches, the Fathers say, that the Prodigal Son squandered away, far off in the country, far from the Father and his home.
For the Fathers also say that the home that was left by the Prodigal Son was nothing other than Paradise, and the far country he ran to was this world of lamentation, sorrow, earthquakes, snowstorms, untimely death, cancer and pain. This world of sin and darkness is the far country where the riches of the created human nature are squandered and wasted.
And when the Prodigal Son hired himself out to a citizen of that far country to feed the pigs, our Lord said that the boy was so hungry, so desperate and poor, that he looked upon the slop that was given to the swine and wanted to take and eat.
How low this Prodigal Son has descended! How is it possible for a boy, fashioned in the Image of God, who belonged once to the House of the Father, who had eaten bread at the High Table – how is it possible for this boy who had been so noble, so beautiful – how is it possible that any of us Prodigal sons and daughters to ever want to eat the food of pigs?
For the secret is out: you and I play the part of the Prodigal Son, whether we'd like to admit it or not. We were once made to be noble, and to share in the glories of Paradise, but in sin and passion we descended to the place of the swine.
In life, there are moments of possibility that the Lord mercifully arranges for each one of us. They usually come when we hit the bottom, and find ourselves friendless, homeless, hopeless and rootless. These are the moments when we understand the truth of ourselves – that our hearts are desperately sick and deeply wounded … that our minds are darkened by the passions of pride and despondency, of lust and gluttony, of greed and self-esteem.
These are the moments of deep Confession, when we "come to ourselves" like the Prodigal Son. These are the moments when we recognize that the entire far country, from the very moment when we stepped foot outside the gates of our Father's House – that that was the moment when we first stepped foot into the place of the pigs. Confession is the moment when we recognize that all the drinking, all the carousing, all the parties and fornication and riotous living were nothing other than languishing in the pig pen of life.
Confession is also the moment when we speak the words of the Prodigal Son: "In my Father's house there was bread enough and to spare." We remember the sweetness and light of Paradise. We remember the taste of the Eucharist, which is the "daily bread" of the Lord's prayer, the "super-substantial bread" that is truly "bread and enough to spare."
We remember that God is Love, and that the Trinity, One in Essence, is the divine outpouring of love from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit, and this outpouring is so over-abundant that it spills out into the entire universe as Uncreated Light.
We remember that Jesus is our Good Shepherd and Good Samaritan. We remember that this world is not our home. We remember that we were made for better things, that our souls were meant to be filled with light, and not the darkness of passion and sin. We remember that there was a time in which we knew the names of animals and we tended our gardens, and there was Springtime and sunlight, and green fields and flowers that sprung up in the abundance of our homes, our families and our life in the Church.
And so, with the Prodigal Son, we make up our mind to say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you." And like the Prodigal Son, we rise up and begin our journey home.
We walk home to Paradise these forty days of the Great Fast. We fast every day, even Sundays, with the diet of Adam and Eve who ate no meat. We give generously of our money to the poor, rejecting our once sinful prodigal lifestyle. We turn off our entertainments. We switch off our televisions. We turn down our party invitations.
Instead, we pray and pray, and with ever "Lord have mercy," we take another step along the way.
It will be, on a Bright and Glorious Day, at the end of this journey, that we will find Him waiting, our Good and Heavenly Father, Who is always looking for the return of every Prodigal Son.
Even you. Even me.
+ METROPOLITAN NICHOLAS