Wednesday, March 24, 2010

03-14-2010: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9-12 / Psalm 34 / 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 / Luke 15:1-3,11-32

In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio John Paul II identified a theme running through all the great religious traditions -- the pilgrimage toward self-knowledge. “(A) journey,” the pope said, “that leads us to heed the admonition carved on the temple portal at Delphi -- the admonition to know thyself -- and to answer the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I and Where have I come from? Those who seek to answer these questions set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings,’ that is, as those who ‘know themselves.’”

Others have said the same thing in different ways: “First you have to be one with your soul,” Ghandi wrote, “Then you will be one with the others.” And the inverse insight by the American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray: “The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.”

If Lent is about conversion there’s no better story to illustrate it than that of today’s gospel, the Parable of the Prodigal. We can read it in any number of ways, from all different points of view, and find a lesson well worth the time. At the very least, it’s a story about how a young man (like many young men) veers down the wrong path and ends up in dissolute living, drifting from fleeting pleasure to fleeting pleasure. But if we left The Prodigal here we would only glean a peripheral message. The most important lesson, the one cited by all the great religious traditions, is about self-knowledge, self-awareness. In the parable, when The Prodigal has hit rock bottom, his inheritance spent, his pride obliterated, his stomach empty, the English translation reads: “he came to his senses.” But the original Greek reveals a deeper insight and the real meaning of conversion: “Then,” the Greek has it: “coming to himself…he got up and returned to his father.”

Yes, conversion is about encountering God – eventually; but, first, you must come to yourself. That moment when the light goes on, when consciousness is born, when we begin to want to be free of what enslaves us – that’s the coming-to-self the parable rejoices in. Homer knew this way back (even before the portal at Delphi was inscribed) when he first placed the wandering Odysseus in the sexual embrace of Calypso (a name meaning "to cover over") and, later, in bloody confrontation with Antinous (a name meaning, literally, "against-consciousness"). When Odysseus overcomes both these enemies of self-awareness, he will have come home, he will have come to himself.

Lent is often understood as a time to grow closer to God, but most of us haven’t yet reached that high a plateau on life’s journey. We need to start small, at the beginning, with our own selves. Lent is meant to be a pilgrimage of self-discovery, humbly accepting ourselves for who we are and where we’re at. Our first task in life, as the pope so eloquently put it, is to become human beings – “those who know themselves.” As for God: the parable suggests he is like the prodigal’s father – a father prodigal in mercy - who meets us where we’re at, not where we might wish we were.

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