Return of the Prodigal Son

(Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C)

Several years ago a friend gave me a reproduction of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. Against a dark background two lighted figures stand out – a richly dressed elderly man and a youth with ragged garments. You see his one bare foot as he kneels before his father. His shaven head presses into the old man’s chest. The father reaches with both hands just below his son’s shoulders. On the right two men stare in amazement. Behind them we see the pained face of a person who seems to almost disappear. Our attention is irresistibly drawn back to the father and son.

I spent some time with the painting, then decided the appropriate spot for it – our parish reconciliation room. While waiting for penitents and during confessions I often look at it. I pray in some way I can be like the Father so movingly depicted by Rembrandt. Those who enter the confessional certainly seek that. But I admit I often identify with the other characters – the onlookers who don’t know quite what to make of such tenderness. Or even the aloof older brother, so attached to his own good opinion (self- esteem) he cannot see the other person.

The one I desire most to be is the younger son. Fr. Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932-1996) wrote a helpful book with the same title as the Rembrandt masterpiece. The painting questioned him. Who are you? Which of the figures do you identify with? His first thoughts were that he did not know what it was like to be the prodigal son, to be held and loved, to rest his head on the Father. He was one of the onlookers. Nouwen wrote, "For years I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life . . . But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God?"

Fr. Nouwen describes how he resisted being held by the Father. Many times he tried to run from God, to escape his glance. Eventually he saw the great truth that we cannot return to him on our own. Jesus, eternal Son of the Father, became man precisely so we could participate in that embrace. In today’s second reading St. Paul puts it bluntly, “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor 5:21)

Modern man does not want to face his sin. So much easier to attack Jerry Falwell or Cardinal Ratzinger or “those hypocrites.” Beneath the bluster of a Bill Maher, one senses a certain fear. As Shakespeare said, “Conscience does make cowards of us all.” We sometimes think the younger son was an opportunist to the end. Maybe like some dotcom millionaire suddenly up to his ears in debt after the stock market blowout – seeking a safe shelter. But remember the moment when you were down? Was not the temptation to simply lie there, even die there? Besides humility, it took some courage for the son to point his face back home.

I ask you to fix in your mind the image of that boy kneeling before his father, head pressed to his heart. Rembrandt deliberately painted the father with two different hands, one strong and gnarled, the other smooth, more delicate like a young mother. Rembrandt was no proto-feminist; rather he wished to depict the power and tenderness of God. We now have access to him thru the one who “was dead and has come back to life.” (Lk 15: 24, 32)

The movie Trip to Bountiful (a video well worth renting) tells the story of an elderly woman who longs to visit her childhood home. She softly sings the old hymn, "Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home" as she returns to Bountiful, Texas.

Unfortunately we seldom sing that hymn in Catholic churches. Still its words are most appropriate for us this Fourth Sunday of Lent:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling O sinner, come home. Come home, come home,
ye who are weary, come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling O sinner, come home."

**********

Spanish Version

From Archives (Year C homilies for Fourth Sunday of Lent):

First Things: Your Story & His Story (2016)
I Have Sinned (2013)
A New Creation (2010)
Confession of Sins and New Creation (2007)
The Reproach of Egypt (2004)
Return of the Prodigal Son (2001)
Who is The Prodigal Son? (1998)

Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:

Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 4 (2014)
Sight (2011)
Small Gesture with Enormous Promise (2008)
Seeing and Knowing (2005)
Men Who Went Blind (2002)
Fatal Blindness (1999)

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