Lent carries so many subtle nuances as Catholics and Christians edge towards Easter. There is a solemnity to it, to the fasting and abstinence, the talk of sin and sacraments, of redemption and resurrection. New England wrestles with winter’s wanting spring. Doubts and ambiguity linger about the interface of secular and spiritual. It all happens at once: upholstered gray skies are the backdrop for one discouraging news report after the other, and social media sources both information and misinformation. The plight of refugees from all over the world and the ravages of war point to an incomprehensible suffering that surges over the practices and customs of Lent with vehemence. And so this is where we are when the Gospel of the Prodigal Son is read again.
When I was a child, my mother made it quite clear that she did not agree with the story’s outcome or message. Her sympathy lay with the elder son, and her disappointment in the father’s actions was palatable. There was, she would say, no way the prodigal was anything but selfish and cruel, even narcissistic in his reappearance and his accpetance of the welcome. She suspected him of even worse, and would note that he is not heard from again in the Gospel. “Probably killed the old man to get the rest of the fortune,” she would grumble. “Maybe knocked off the other brother, too…” So I have listened to the story a thousand times with a dose of cynicism and a hearty skepticism. Until now.
Because in the inevitable way that “now” changes things, the story opens a portal to something I had not realized at first. “Now” has revealed the complexities of human life and systems with an unmitigated relentlessness. Being human is more complicated than suspected for those navigating the storm of it. Motives and morals are elusive pieces in making choices and decisions. Perspectives and possibilities are rooted in time and circumstance and belong to every human of their own accord. Absolutes are imaginary and purposes often obscured. So it is with the Prodigal Son. The story captures a timeline of the Prodigal Son’s choices and actions. But it also conveys the actions of an indulgent father and an elder brother bound by norms and mores that the younger obviously did not share. Contentment eludes ech of them in unique ways and points to the daily challenges of living. There is a restless focus on the future and a lack of attentiveness to the present moment. There is wanting to be liked and to please one another, to be seen and recognized, known and understood, accepted. All three point to this.
In the end, what matters is reconciling, coming together with the impossible puzzle pieces life presents. It is discovering that there is more to be seen, known and understood in each of us. It is about taking the moment to discover what really matters, embracing reality and seeing possibility. It is about living in the now and believing beyond that. It is not about judgment or punishment, condemnation or cruelty but conscious choice, compassion, resilience and hope. It is about action over passivity and promise over loss. It is about realizing that beyond the gray upholstered clouds, there is light. We are ready for “now”, for change, for hope.