St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 19, 2006

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Let me begin today with a poem I love written by the mystic poet Rumi.

First lay down your head
Then one by one let go of all distractions.
Embrace the light
And let it guide you beyond the winds of desire.
There you will find a spring and nourished
By its sweet waters
Like a tree you will bear fruit forever.

The parable of the Prodigal Son speaks of many things including the terrible corrupting effects of sin, the unconditional love of God and the hard work and joy of repentance. Today I would like to speak about repentance.

Repentance is much more than making a list and admitting our sins. It implies the willingness to make a radical transformation. Metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, literally means to turn around, to change one’s mind or direction. There is nothing cursory, rote, or simplistic about true repentance.

The Prodigal Son, after a great deal of suffering, decided to return to his father’s house as a way to end his pain. You may think, as I once did, that there was nothing particularly noble about that. Sounds very self-serving; and yet, is this not in itself a worthy motive? We cause so much of our own suffering when we attach ourselves to things that are untrue, to ways of thinking that are harmful, to behaviors we hope will bring comfort and peace even when we know full well they never possibly could.

An example I love is given by C. S. Lewis who wrote that the devil wins a great victory when he can convince a beautiful woman that she is ugly. Will her life not begin to revolve around that lie once accepted? What happens to a young boy who comes to believe that he cannot please his father? He will spend his whole life trying to come up with the confidence to attempt anything the least bit challenging in life, feeling that he will never succeed if he does. To find a way to end the cycle of suffering, self-inflicted or otherwise, is noble because it offers a way of life free of falsehood and open to infinite possibilities. Happiness is a noble goal.

Repentance then cannot be merely a recognizing sin in our lives. We must also change the way we think about ourselves, about God, about life itself. The Prodigal Son came to believe he was invincible. Notice, he did not change his mind on his own. Running out of money and into debt changed it for him, but a real transformation began in him when he realized the way to end his suffering: to return home. Facing the consequences at home, he reasoned, would be far better than continuing life in a pigpen. He changed his mind. He accepted that he was not invincible. I’ll bet at some point he attempted to blame his father for his ill fortune while he ate those pods. Do we not usually look for someone else to blame when things don’t go right? Eventually he came to know the truth. He came to understand that no one else was to blame. His understanding of himself changed at that moment. He came face to face with reality, with his stupid decision and irresponsible behavior. He stood and walked away not only from a pigpen, but from a lie.

If we want to make progress this Lent we too must turn away from the lies around which we have built our lives. That is why the Church asks us to begin the Lenten journey by first seeking one another’s forgiveness and giving it in the great ritual of Forgiveness Vespers. We must take responsibility for our actions and forgive any who have wronged us. Then we are instructed to fast from the myths and fables of culture, from the aphrodisiac of entertainment, the deadening effects of gluttony and noise, to all those things to which we have become addicted as a way to assuage the anxiety and pain of life that is ever-present inside us. Paradoxically, we even become addicted to unpleasant things like anger and fear although they bring nothing but sorrow. Finally, we must begin to dismantle the structure we have made out of sand which we call “ourselves”. Thus, we follow the instruction given in one of the Church’s holy prayers “to still all earthly and material thoughts.”

I invite you this Lent to nourish in yourselves the love of silence. Make the effort to turn off not only the radio, but the incessant inner dialogue. How? Become aware of it and then stop paying attention to it. See it for what it is, empty, ridiculous, misleading, powerless, and then turn your attention to what is full of meaning and positive, to the Name of Jesus, to the wonder of each and every moment, to the beauty of life lived consciously in its fullness with each and every breath. Take this opportunity to step out your own pigpen, to change your mind, to change your life, the way you think and the way you live. Embrace stillness. Embrace peace. Embrace silence. Embrace the journey to the kingdom of heaven which, as the Lord says, has been conveniently placed inside each and every one of us. It is the light of His kingdom shining within that will guide us “beyond the winds of desire” to that spring running with sweet and eternal waters.

Step away from the mundane and lifeless idea of repentance as making a shopping list of sins and turn instead to the idea of repentance as embracing a new way of seeing and living life.