A Sermon preached at St Mary’s by Fr William Davage for LENT 4

Prodigal Love

Lent, as we all know, we bang on about it often enough, is that period which the Church wisely sets aside as a time for introspection, self-examination, looking at ourselves closely and critically, thinking about what we have done wrong and how we can put it right: a time for a spring-clean of the soul, body and mind to make us ready to enter Our Lord’s Passion and rejoice at his Resurrection.

It is a process of conversion and repentance, of re-orientation and one described by Jesus in this parable of the Prodigal Son. It is one of the most detailed and schematic of Jesus’ parables, rich in teaching, insight, and discernment. There was about the Prodigal Son a restlessness, a sense of dissatisfaction, of interior unease, a claustrophobic sense of constraint, of being tied down, fettered. He thought that there might be something better, something beyond the horizon, at the end of the rainbow. This fascination with an illusory freedom led to his abandonment of his father’s house, cutting loose, moving on. He finds a new life, the bright lights, the glamour of moral dissipation, the heady atmosphere of loose living, that some of us can but dream about. None of this induced happiness or satisfaction. He squandered his inheritance and to compound his misery was reduced below penury. Wealth, money, riches were all gone. He lost his self-esteem and self-worth. He suffered the humiliation of becoming the hired help, feeding the swine and, even worse, to feed on pigs’ swill.

In this physical and moral degradation he could only reflect on what he had lost, had thrown away. This introspection and self-examination, this judgement and condemnation and conviction of himself set him on the journey back, set him on the way to repentance. And what does he find at the end of that journey, that long road of remorse and regret? He finds a generous welcome from the father whom he had deserted and disappointed. He might have expected a grudging acceptance, the inevitable “I told you so.” But he witnessed nothing but his father’s joy and love, unqualified and boundless: because in the father’s heart, in the heart of God there is only love.

By taking the path of conversion of heart and of repentance the Prodigal Son won a new life and the rich robe, the precious ring, the festal banquet are all symbols of that new life won: a new life characterized by its richness, beauty and fulfilment: “pure, worthy, joyful.” The sin which leads us into exile, the falling away from God need not be a permanent alienation because there is always a way back. That path exists in the Church, the Body of Christ, because God in Christ Jesus wants to bring us back from the darkness and unhappiness of sin, from the barren wasteland of our exile into the full light of his love. S. Paul told the Ephesians, “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; be like children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness and right living and truth.”

All this is accomplished in the loving embrace of God as Father, within the Body of his Son, the Church, and with recourse to Our Lady’s prayers to help us. That love is unconditional, it is indiscriminate and universal: it is meant for us all, all-embracing, all-encompassing and it was sealed on the cross.

At the foot of that infamous gibbet stood Christ’s dolorous Mother. In the painting The Madonna of the Pinks attributed to Raphael, the infant Christ clutches pinks, dianthus, from the Greek meaning flower of God. They represent a premonition of Our Lord’s Passion, agony, and crucifixion. Christian tradition has it that the flowers first appeared when Our Lady wept at the foot of the Cross. Our Lady’s maternal love and protection is never more vividly expressed than when she holds the Christ child in her arms at his Nativity and again when she cradles his deposed body, bleeding and bruised, at his crucifixion. That maternal love is available to us as we light our candles and seek her intercession. This Fourth Sunday of Lent is also Mothering Sunday and it signals the love we have for our own mothers, for Christ’s Mother, Mary ever Virgin and for Mother Church and also the love they have for us.

Our Lady reinforces her Son’s parable about unconditional love that we see in this morning’s Gospel. The Church sees in her a perfect example of redeemed love. As the highest of the redeemed she speaks to the whole of humanity the possibilities of love. Penetrating the Christian insight and experience is the sense of divine Revelation: of love and light bestowed, and not searched out: of being found, rather than of finding: of being known by God, rather than of knowing. Deep in the Catholic consciousness is the recognition of the mystery of divine love, a love not fathomable by human sense or mind but one apprehended and felt.

This Sunday, in another of its themes, the Church reminds us of herself, in particular of the Mother Church of the diocese, the seat of the bishop, that spiritual powerhouse, and beyond that locus to Holy Mother Church and her universal reach of love. The Church is no less a family than our own families and we know well enough that not all families work well, or do not work well all the time. But when they do work well, in imitation of the relationship of love which exists in the Holy Trinity, then they bring something of the divine directly into our everyday lives.

And when in this Lenten season we examine ourselves and our lives, it is tempting to believe that the world as it is, is the world as it is meant to be. That what we are is what we are meant to be. But the power of God acting in us has the power to change us from what we are into what we are meant to be. And that interior transformation, that transformation of ourselves through our faithfulness and commitment, allows us the power to transform others, to open their eyes to the reality of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

One of the worst of temptations that can afflict us is to think that we do not matter; that we are of little or no account; that what we say or do has no effect. But this underestimates the power and love of God to work in us and through us. God’s measure is not the world’s measure. We are of infinite value and worth in the eyes of God. Who we are does matter. What we say and what we do does matter. We are the agents of God, “ambassadors for Christ” and by the living of our lives in obedience to his call, we are transforming ourselves, our families, our communities and if we are not, we ought to be.

Through our Baptism we were claimed by Christ as his own. We were all marked with the sign of the cross and we continue day by day to impress the cross on ourselves as a reminder of that claim that he makes on us, and as a reminder of that unconditional love that he has for each of us, a love so great and so profound that he gave up his life on the cross, endured shame, humiliation and torture, death for love of us. And we come in this Mass as in every Mass, even if every Mass to enter again into his Passion, Death and Resurrection: to enter into the heart of love sacramentally expressed and made present. Bread and wine, souls and bodies, bodies and blood offered on Calvary’s altar to the Father who waits with a rich robe, a precious ring, shoes for our feet, a fatted calf for the feast, who greets us with a kiss and with open arms and with an open heart to bring us back to him.

Fr William Davage