31 Mar 2019

It’s a mystery in families, why one kid turns out one way, another so differently, even though they’ve had the same upbringing, affection and advantages. Today a boy asks for his inheritance early (Lk 15:1-3,11-32). In the Ancient Near East it’s a terrible request. The boy is abandoning his family, its domestic projects and business. It amounts to saying, “You’re as good as dead to me, Dad, so I’ll take my inheritance now.” He’s writing his father off; it would stab any father through the heart.

But the father loves the boy enough to respect his freedom. Off the youth goes and squanders it all, becoming the most famously prodigal son in history. Hanging in the Old Masters’ Gallery in Dresden is one of Rembrandt’s early works, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, in which the dissolute lad raises a huge glass of ale and strokes a plump frau sitting on his lap. As we know from the parable, he ends up in the deepest squalor imaginable to a Jew: feeding pigs, indeed fantasising of eating with them!

Many people only come to their senses when they are bereft. Alcoholics, it’s often said, will only face the gravity of their situation when they wake up in the gutter; adulterers, when they are about to lose spouse, children and home; the greedy, through the humiliation and insecurity of bankruptcy. The boy’s story is the story of each one of us, forced to face up to our weakness, desperation, need for forgiveness. And the Church never tires of telling the Good News proclaimed by Paul in our Epistle: “God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ… not holding men’s faults against them, and He has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.” (2 Cor 5:17-21) The Church exhorts all her children to join the Prodigal Son in his return to the Father, especially through sacramental Confession, especially in Lent.

So the lad in our story comes to his senses and resolves to return. He stands outside and practices his Act of Contrition. “Father,” he recites, “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you: I no longer deserve to be called your son. But please take me back…”. And he is received back by his father with open arms, even before he gets all the words out. Such is the experience I have sometimes had myself as a penitent, when confessing the ways I’ve let down my heavenly Father. I’ve hardly got the words of contrition out and the priest’s absolution is washing over my heart and soul. The weight is lifted and I feel light as air!

The Gospel scene was the inspiration for what the art historian Kenneth Clark called “quite possibly the greatest picture ever painted”.[1] One of Rembrandt’s last works, The Return of the Prodigal Son now hangs in pride of place in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It depicts the wretched lad kneeling in repentance and the father receiving him back with a tender embrace.

Standing stiffly to the right of the picture is the older brother who, instead of holding his arms out to embrace the returnee, has them folded tightly across his chest. His is the story of virtue indignant at vice. He is Israel full of righteousness looking down upon the Gentiles smelling of pork. And I suspect many of us good-living Christians feel more than a bit of sympathy for him, even if we don’t think we’re perfect.

Where the older brother seems to have gone wrong was in not being prodigal enough: not with money, women or ale, but with mercy and hospitality. He, too, is “standing outside” and needs to return home: not physically, but spiritually. He, too, needs to apologize and be absolved. So the Church exhorts us, not just when we’re in a major moral mess, but even when we’re doing pretty well, to stop, examine our consciences and confess our sins. Whichever brother we’ve become, perhaps a bit of both, we need reconciliation and a fresh start. And if we make the smallest steps back to the Father, we’ll find He’s been searching the horizon for us, is moved with pity when He glimpses us, and runs to our rescue. If the boy was wasteful with the money, the father is wasteful with the mercy: a Prodigal Father for the prodigal son. The greatest sinner receives the finest robe and fattest calf. That’s my experience when hearing the Confession of someone whose been away for decades or has had something heavy weighing on their soul. I want, as I know God wants, to hug them, throw a party for them, reassure them that all is forgiven and their former dignity restored!

It’s easy for us to receive mercy – but we can forget what this giving costs God. That’s why it is good to hear this story in Lent, when we see God hanging naked, abused and dying. In the ancient world a rich man like the one in our story did not leave his house to meet a subordinate: he would wait for them to arrive, often without even standing. If ever he did leave his house, it would be in some ancient equivalent of a limo: he certainly wouldn’t run, let alone after an inferior, as the father does in our story. Nor would he display tears and kisses in front of servants, strangers and story-tellers. Nor would he reward someone who’d disgraced the family name, frittered away the family property, and publicly written off the father as dead. No fine rose vestments and bishop’s ring for him! More likely, it’d be a good beating or worse, and hard reparations for years to come. Lastly, the pater familias in the ancient world would never have gone outside a second time, this time to plead with another disobedient son, listening patiently to all his gripes… Yet, time and again, rather than standing on His dignity, God the Father does indeed come to us to plead with us, welcome us, to clasp us to His bosom through the Church’s Word and Sacraments and Service – and may find Himself rebuffed and humiliated by us.

Here at Mass, we stand with the younger son, declaring that I confess to almighty God. Here at Mass, we stand with the older son who should be thankful, offering the greatest act of Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. But here at Mass, we also join the Prodigal Father at His party for the tax-collectors and sinners, for the lost who’ve been found, the sinner whose been reconciled. In this over-the-top celebration God does more than turn water into wine, more than turn sinner into saint. He makes bread and wine His very self for us. “Take my body and blood, my humanity and divinity, my substance and power and destiny. Take everything I am, my child, for you are with me always and all I have is yours.


St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her” – so began the Introit which our choir just sang for us (cf. Isa 66:10). In the middle of this penitential season accompanying Christ to His Passion and Death, the Church breaks out in unseemly laughter. It’s as if we’re unable to take the dour purple of Lent seriously. The Church is impatient for Easter, like a child eyeing the Easter eggs, picking them up when no-one is looking, scratching them, sniffing the chocolate. Even our bishops are dressed up like Easter eggs on this day! 

So it is with Lenten sombreness but Easter joy that I welcome you to St Mary’s Basilica for the Solemn Mass of Lætare Sunday. That we might be ready to rise with Christ at Easter let us go down with Him into the tomb as we confess our sins…

[1]  John Durham, The Biblical Rembrandt (Mercer UP, 2004), 183.