Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Compassion - and the Mystery - of the Father

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." (LK. 15:20)

The prodigal son was forgiven by his father in a manner that must have overwhelmed him. It would have been unreasonable on his part to expect such a greeting considering his abandonment of his father. With sincerity, his hope was that by throwing himself before the mercy of his father, he would find enough acceptance to allow him back into his home,, if only as a "hired servant." Yet, there were no reproaches, strained explanations or heated exchanges. The father of the parable did not survey the past with the intention of shaming his younger son into an acknowledgment of his many sins. There was a total absence of that most human propensity in such a situation to convey through the slightest intonations of words or gestures that crushing reproach: "What did I tell you!" There was acceptance and forgiveness - together with "compassion," as Christ says. We do not have to depend upon a heavy dose of allegory to immediately recognize that Christ is offering us a model of His and our heavenly Father as the unlimited Source of grace, forgiveness and love. This lengthy parable was the third in a series - all found in LK. 15 - given as responses to the pharisaic reproach of Christ, that "This man receives sinners and eats with them." (LK. 15:2)

As we approach the Sunday of the Last Judgment, this is essential to remember. Judgement is real, but we cannot allow that impending reality to obscure the infinite mercy and love of God, so infinite and merciful that the Father sent His only-begotten Son into the world in order to die and rise from the dead so that we may have abundant life in His name. The kenosis (self-emptying) of the Son, in fulfillment of the will of the Father, is the revelation that God is in search of prodigal humanity. That even though we have "squandered" our inheritance, He will proclaim a feast when we are found. Our human language is inadequate, but perhaps we could claim that God is not "offended" by human sin, but rather "pained" by it. The Father will seek out the lost sheep and not abandon it. First and foremost, then, our heavenly Father is compassionate and "brimming" with a love that is inexhaustible and overwhelming: "This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (I TIM. 2:3) Isn't "judgment," then, somehow self-inflicted?

A remarkable book was recently translated from French into English with the title The Compassion of the Father. The author, Protopresbyter Boris Bobrinskoy, is the dean of St. Sergius Orthodox Institute in Paris. As a wise and elderly man, he remains overwhelmed by the compassion of the Father, in what he has called "the mystery of the Father." The entire book is a series of theological and meditative articles about this mystery and its relationship to the kenosis of the Son of God, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The introduction of the book further quotes a passage of his from an article about the Holy Trinity and the Sacraments that prepares the reader for the riches of the book to come. Here, Fr. Bobrinskoy reflects upon human fatherhood in relation to (God the) Father:

What is a father if not an overflowing of love? But do we feel it as such? How do we live this filial relationship to the Father? Do we really know the meaning of fatherhood - if only the purely human and earthly - without which this relationship to the father no longer makes much sense? Are we able to understand and to live the meaning and implications of the 'bowels of mercy' and of the tenderness of the Father? What effect does all this have on our awareness and our life? These are questions I ask myself, and I ask them aloud. Questions which the Holy Spirit Himself asks in us, by prompting us to become more aware of the mystery of the person of the Father. For the Father is not only a name: He is also a living person. A person with whom we should enter into a living and personal relationship, through Christ. How do we become sons and daughters, children of the light? In our personal or ecclesial experience, where is the prayer of the Spirit who sighs in us 'Abba, Father'? Let us remember what St. Ignatius wrote in his Letter to the Romans: 'A living water murmurs in me: come to the Father.'

Within the Church's Holy Tradition, there are manifold treasures to draw from: The Scriptures, the Councils, the Liturgy, the Holy Fathers and Mothers, sacred iconography and more. Yet underneath all of this, or perhaps better, through the living Tradition of the Church, we must never lose sight of the compassion of the Father. Our thirst is for a living relationship with the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. As important as theology is, we cannot reduce this relationship to a theological system - or to canonical norms! When that happens, we have then created one more idol even more difficult to topple because of its outward attractiveness. It is the compassion of the Father that keeps bringing us back to church and receiving the Eucharist. It is was moves us to prayer and almsgiving, and then repentance when we continue to sin. That compassion brought Christ to us in our misery. When we make the slightest movement to return toward that compassion following our self-willed estrangement, the Father leaps out to us and runs to meet us in an embrace of love.

Fr. Steven

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