The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) reveals to us the time of repentance as man’s return from exile. The prodigal son, we are told, went to a far country and there spent all that he had. A far country! It is this unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God. A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly “at home” in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.
Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and “objective” enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of “pleading guilty” to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked — without which neither confession nor absolution have any real meaning or power. This “something” is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home. I received from God wonderful riches: first of all, life and the possibility to enjoy it, to fill it with meaning, love, and knowledge; then — in baptism — the new life of Christ himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the peace and joy of the eternal kingdom. I received the knowledge of God, and in him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a child of God. All this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular “sins” and “transgressions,” but in the sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father.
But the church is here to remind me of what I have abandoned and lost. And as she reminds me, I remember. And as I remember, I find in myself the desire to return and the power to return.
Alexander Schmemann, from Great Lent
Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was an influential Russian Orthodox priest, teacher, and writer. The majority of his working life was spent at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY. His teaching focused on helping people see the connection between Christian theology and Christian liturgy. The above is taken from his excellent work, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.