Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Mystery of the Prodigal Son

XXIV Sunday Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish 
Austin, TX

The Lord has a great deal to say today, so I will say very little. Three very familiar and memorable passages, Luke’s chapter 15, the chapter on Mercy and forgiveness. These parables, the parable of the prodigal son in particular, all have great morals to their stories. Yet the mysteries that they contain are not often spoken of. Now, by the word ‘mystery’ I do not mean ‘unknown’ or ‘hidden,’ like a ‘mystery novel.’ Much less do I mean something we cannot know—‘I guess it's a mystery.’ Rather the word ‘mystery’ here means the invisible reality of salvation, Christ Himself, signified and communicated in visible signs called the sacraments (Cf. ccc. 774). 

Take for instance when St. Paul speaks of marriage as a great mystery (Cf. Eph 5:32). It is not as if he does not know what marriage is. No, for he says “I am speaking about Christ and His Church.” Paul is speaking of the profound mystery that is the relationship between Christ and His Church signified by the relationship between husband and wife in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Likewise with the Eucharist, bread and wine are those visible sings, sacraments, which signify and communicate the deeper mystery of Christ’s body and blood. Our Gospel today contains several of these mysteries which lie just beyond the parables.

The prodigal son does something quite extraordinary. After examining the situation, he resolves to return to his father, confess his fault, and hope that he is taken back if only as a hired worker: “father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you” (Lk 15:21). The father forgives the son and restores him to his proper place, clothing him with the finest robe (Lk 15:22). Is this not a beautiful image, a striking symbol of the sacrament of confession, the mystery of forgiveness? We examen our consciences, confess our sins, and receive the forgiveness of the Father. There we are recognized as sons and daughters of God the Father and clothed again with the purity of our baptismal garment. Yet there is more. The father’s house to which the son returns is another image or sign of the deeper mystery in which we return through confession to the Church, the house of God. This becomes more clear when we consider the pigs he left behind, pigs which are considered in the Jewish world to be unclean and not to be consumed. Thus, only those who are not following God’s commandments, pagans, raise them or are associated with them. Thus the son is leaving behind his life away from God and returning home through the confession of his faults to the father. Again a great sign of the mystery of reconciliation with God through the sacrament of confession. 

Yet the signs and symbols do not stop there. The father calls for the slaying of the fattened calf and to celebrate with a feast (Lk 15: 23). What do we receive other than the sacrifice of the father, the celebration of the feast that is the Eucharist. Yes, indeed, the story of the Prodigal Son is a great sign, a symbol of an even deeper mystery which is our return to the Father through the sacraments of the Church.   

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