"This son of mine was dead and has come back to life"
Introduction to Mass
Saint Paul says in the second reading today that "for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here". Jesus also emphasises the new life that follows genuine repentance and turning to God. He compares it in striking language to someone who was lost but is now found, who was dead but has now come back to life.
So to prepare ourselves to celebrate Mass let us acknowledge the areas in our lives where we tend to cling to the old creation and ask God to pardon us and heal us.
We're now half-way through the Season of Lent for this year. Lent has a tone, a mood, and a set of themes of its own.
Lent is modelled on Christ's forty days in the desert, fasting and praying in silence and solitude. So it's a solemn time, and it's aim is to encourage reflectiveness, examination of conscience, a purification and a change of attitudes and behaviour. I personally value the church year with its movement from one season to the next, and the changes of mood and tone and spiritual emphasis involved in that movement.
One of the major strands of biblical religion is the conviction of God's loftiness, his perfect love, truth, justice and holiness.
Next to the all-holy God we don't look very impressive, and this aspect of Lent is highlighted mainly in the Old Testament readings on Sundays and weekdays, which concentrate on the many apostasies of the Chosen People, their tendency to wander away from him, only to be called back by him in a series of new beginnings, with expressions of sorrow and remorse on their part, and a constant readiness to forgive on God's part.
This is the moral of the story Jesus tells in the gospel this Sunday, the parable of the Prodigal Son. People sometimes prefer to see the father as the leading actor in the drama but I would argue that in the context of Lent, at any rate, it's the delinquent and finally repentant Son that should attract our main attention.
Last Sunday I suggested that adolescence and youth, in our culture, is often a time of rebellion, of abandoning the beliefs and values learned in childhood, and that when this happens in Christian families it causes upset to parents, who regard the Christian faith as among the most important things they provide for their children.
Obviously there are exceptions to that rule, as to every other. I know several families where the children go from youth to adulthood and their faith and their relationship with God simply progresses and grows, apparently without major upset or interruption.
But the general point is still true, I think, and in fact Jesus' parable implies that it isn't only something that happens in our modern "un-religious" culture. It was common, or at least unremarkable, even in his day.
The Prodigal Son has many of the typical characteristics of youth: he's egocentric in the normal, carefree, un-malicious way of young people, he's attracted to a life of pleasure and enjoyment, he feels invincible. He doesn't have his older brother's dedication to the duties of family and work, a dedication that is very praiseworthy in itself.
And while the sun shines he makes hay. But eventually his circumstances pass out of his own control and his fortunes change. And again, if I might repeat something I said last Sunday, we often need this sort of experience, an experience of failure or suffering, something that makes us aware of our sinfulness and our need to atone for our sinfulness, to know God and grow in our relationship with him.
This is the sort of experience that the Prodigal Son has. The end of his days of wine and roses brings a first of all a spiritual awakening - "he came to his senses," Jesus says, and secondly it brings a transformation of character: “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your servants”. He realises the superficiality and self-centredness of his former life and starts to recognise other people's wants and needs. No longer invincible, he starts to learn humility.
Those two elements make up the essence of genuine repentance. First we awaken, sometimes with a great shock, to the extent that our outlook and behaviour has revolved around ourselves, we realise what an unworthy purpose in life that really is, and we have a powerful sense of our weakness and our capacity for error.
And second, in the light of this awakening, our will, our emotions, our way of thinking - our whole person - is gradually transformed. We turn to God and we rely on him to guide us, rather than on our own judgements or appetites.
Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during the War, wrote afterwards, when he was asked if he had forgiven his captors, that verbal repentance isn't enough; he could only forgive a man, he said, "who has shown by his actions that he is no longer the man he was".
Christ's view doesn't exactly coincide with those sentiments, but there's one point of contact at least. In the parable the father's love for his son never fails, never fades. He waits for years for his son to come back home.
But the source of the Father's joy is not only the return of his prodigal son but the fact that "he is no longer the man he was". As Christ puts it, he was lost, but now he is found; he was dead, but now he has come to life. Very striking images of the awakening and transformation that real repentance involves.
It has become commonplace for religious people to talk about God's "unconditional love" for us and to put it forward as Christianity's great selling-point. But we can talk about "unconditional love" in such a one-sided way that it appears as simply a permission to go on sinning, to live unawakened and untransformed lives.
This isn't the picture of our relationship with God that Christ painted. For him the human vocation is the vocation to holiness. Genuine contact with God changes us, and if we don't change, if we resist change, it's probably because we haven't gone through the experience of repentance that Jesus is illustrating in his parable.
We're supposed to identify with the Prodigal Son and we're supposed to see sometihng of the pattern of our Christian spiritual life in this story of his return from exile to his true home and his true Father. That's what makes this well-known parable appropriate to the particular tone and mood, the particular theme and purpose, of Lent.