The second week of pre-Lent focuses on the parable of the prodigal son. It is a week with the typical Wednesday and Friday fasts, and in most respects it is a normal week liturgically. It is normal in that it calls the believer to a moderate ascetic labouring in the vineyard of salvation. The prodigal son, like the publican, becomes for the believer a paradigm, a paradigm of repentance and approach toward God.
The hymns specific for this week identify the believer with the prodigal son. Prodigal is what we are not what we were. The focus of repentance is never on the past. Repentance is not something the believer did once; it is the ongoing inclination of his or her heart toward God. While repentance is, and must indeed be, manifest in specific acts of turning away and turning towards, these are but the manifestation of a repentant heart, a heart that continually turns from the wickedness in its own depths and continually turns toward the Father in contrition.
One of the great mysteries of God’s family is that the sons by Grace are continually returning, full of the painful awareness that they are unworthy to be called sons and begging that they might merely be treated as one of the hired servants. And with this contrite attitude, the Father greets them and not only calls them sons, but honours them as sons, gives them the gifts and signs of sonship and even ordains a feast in celebration of their return.
This is also one of the mysteries that we see Jesus play out with his disciples at the Last Supper. After Jesus washes their feet, he says to his disciples, “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and that is right, for so I am.” But later in the same talk, Jesus says to them, “No longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends” (John 13:13; 15:15). The disciples come to Jesus as Teacher and Lord–the only appropriate way to approach Him–but having humbly submitted to Him as Lord and Teacher, Jesus receives the disciples as friends.
The prodigal returns to the Father seeking to be made a mere day laborer and is received as a son; the disciples come to Jesus as Teacher and Lord and are received as friends. We enter the arena of the forty-day struggle not as the petulant older son in the parable, whining for “a kid that I might make merry with my friends.” That is, we don’t go into Great Lent with an agenda. We don’t deserve a special gift because of “these many years I have been serving [God].” Rather we go into Great Lent as the younger son, unworthy even to be called sons. We enter the lenten struggle sure of our unworthiness: in the words of the hymns, having “wasted our life in laziness” and having “squandered the riches [our Father] gave us.”
Unworthy to be called sons, we begin the long journey home, expecting nothing more than to be treated as a hired servant. And what do we encounter along the way? Our Father meets us and calls us sons. And instead of a goat to make merry with our friends, He kills the fatted calf that we might make merry with His friends. This is the mystery, the great generosity of God. God does not count what has been lost, only what is found.
The Church teaches us that this too may be our experience in the forty-day journey Home to the Father. However, before we begin, we must accept that we must make this journey. We must accept that our hearts are in a foreign land and that we have lost in “loose living” much of the Grace we may have known or experienced in the past. We must own our waywardness. We must return claiming nothing for ourselves except the hope that our merciful Father will make us as one of the hired servants.