As Christians meditate on the parable of the Prodigal Son during the pre-Lenten season and the Lenten season, because all during this time of year we will be hearing in church about this parable, about the mercy of God, about the gifts of God given to us, about our wasting of those gifts, about our going off into a far country, of being out there among the swine and coming to ourself and getting up and returning back to God and knowing that he accepts us. As we meditate on all those things, in the Orthodox tradition it has been traditional to somehow invision, or envisage, the Church itself as the house of the Father, the household of God.
The Church, first of all, of course, is people. The word “church”—ekklesia, qahal in Hebrew—it means “assembly” or “gathering.” It’s used the first time in the book of Numbers in the Law of Moses. But a qahal or ekklesia, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, doesn’t simply mean a gathering of people, or an assembly. There are other words for that, for example, synagoge or “synagogue.” But that particular word, it means “the gathering that is called by God,” “The gathering where God himself is present and presides.” It’s the gathering that is what it is because God is there. It’s not simply a gathering of people. It’s not even simply a gathering of believers. It’s a gathering of people assembled, called out, ekkaleo in Greek, ekklesia, called out by God himself.
And that’s why that word in used in the new covenant for the Church of Christ. It’s those who are called out by God, called very often in St. Paul’s writing “those who are called,” “those who are chosen,” “those who are faithful,”—that’s used also in the book of Revelation—the kliti, the ekliti, the pistiemdash;in Greek. But that “house of the father,” the experience of the “house of the father” could simply be understood as the experience of the Church. And in the Orthodox Church, never forgetting that the Church is the people, it’s the Church where God is present and for Christians, very particularly, in the headship of Christ his Son, who is the teacher, the priest, the pastor, the bishop, the prophet, that for Christians there is only one priest, one pastor, one teacher, one prophet, and that is Christ himself, the head of the Church, who, through what he has suffered, has become not only the head of the Church, but as the Apostle Paul said in Letter to the Ephesians, the head over all things for the sake of the Church. The head—uper panta, it says it the Greek—the head over everything, te ekklesia, for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all and in all.
Now in Orthodox tradition, this conviction is actually shown—revealed, manifested—in the Church architecture. When Christianity became free, when it was no longer illegal, when the Christians were clearly separated from Jews, where Christianity was no longer a Jewish sect but a gathering in and of itself—very particular Jews with the Gentiles who were grafted to them, who joined them, who were welcomed in by faith and grace—the Christian gathering came to be gathering in certain places.
Originally they were gathering over the dead bodies of the martyrs. That’s why there were relics and bones there that the Christians would celebrate over. They would have their communion service in those places where the martyrs were killed. And then after a while, when the Church was growing, they would have their own buildings or they would take over public buildings. And then at that time they would even bring parts of the bodies of the martyrs and put them under the holy table in the church where the Body and Blood of Christ and the Holy Eucharist and Holy Communion would be celebrated and offered and eaten.
And then the church building began to be built in such a way that you had the head of the Church, humanly speaking, the bishop or the presbyters up in front and the people around and the ministering deacons there and then it began to be developed that there would be icons there, there would be these very particular artistic productions showing the presence of the Saints, the holy Christians, the ones who were saved by faith and grace, who are glorified with God in his kingdom, who suffered even unto death. And their images were put all around.
We could go into detail about this but what we want to understand now is that even the physical experience of the church building and the gathering, the way it’s designed, the way it’s set up with its frescoes and icons, it is done that way to show that this is indeed the house of the Father. It’s the household of God. It is the place of God’s people. It is the oikos, you see, the people who are God’s own peculiar chosen people and who are there because God is there, who is there because Christ is there, because the Holy Spirit has gathered them, to be this Church.
So we Orthodox believe that when we gather as Church—that’s also an expression of the Apostle of Paul in the Corinthian letter—when we gather as Church, there can be divisions among us—heresies, schisms—that was there from the beginning. And the Apostle Paul even said that it had to be so, so that those who were tested and approved could be revealed, they could be shown, they could be approved. That’s part of the story, it’s part of the deal. Sadly, but it’s true. But in that experience of Church, we are given the experience of the house of the Father. And we are given that experience of singing and eating and drinking in his presence. We are given that experience of eating and drinking from his table, and we eat and drink the bread of life, the very blood of God, of Christ that is his life. The body broken, the blood shed is our food and drink. He is the Lamb of God—not only the bread but the Lamb. In the Orthodox Church we even call the bread of Holy Communion “the Lamb,” the Lamb. That’s its technical name. In the west it’s call “host” because hostia was the name for the sacrificed lamb.
And then there’s the music, and the angels are there singing, and all the Saints are there singing, and all the gathering is there, and God the Father is there. And that is a palpable experience that is given to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, a mind willing to understand, a brain willing to be used, and of course, a pure heart that is capable of having that insight, of having that vision of the Kingdom of God here on earth, of the house of the Father.
Now when we think of this, in relation to the parable of the Prodigal Son, we might make a little bit of a kind of change in the story. Let’s imagine that parable differently. Let’s imagine that that younger son, knowing the house of the father, goes off into a far country, wastes everything that he had received from the father and that he had possessed in the father’s house, squandered it all, wasted it all, got involved in riotous living and ultimately ended up among the swine. And then we can imagine in this parable that boy—young man—sitting there among the pigs. And we imagine him thinking about the house of the father. Coming to himself, as it says in St. Luke’s Gospel. And we know from the parable that that boy had a palpable experience of the house of the father. He knew what it was. He knew what it was like; he had been there. He had eaten and drunk there. He had heard the music, he had eaten the food, he had worn the clothes. He knew what it was like. And he remembered it—he had a memory of it. And then he decided that he would get up and go back there—because he had a place to go back to. He knew that it existed. He had seen it, he had experienced it. And that’s what allowed him to go back.
Now suppose we imagine, hearing this parable, that we changed it a little bit. Let’s—not even a little bit. Let’s imagine that we change it quite a bit, in this way: Let’s imagine that the boy, the young man in the far country, remembering the house of the father, knowing what it was, decided not to go back. Let’s imagine that—I don’t know—that he was maybe too afraid to go back, he thought he would be rejected. Maybe he thought, “Oh, what’s the difference anyway, I’m lost there anyway, I might just as well be lost.” Maybe he said, “I’m dead already I might as well be dead.” And you know, lots of people have that experience. Lots of people who are caught up in wickedness and evil, they actually even think that way. They’ll say, “Oh, I’m so bad anyway, God will never take me, what’s the use of even bothering. I’m lost and I might as well be really evil and really—I don’t, know—waste myself because I’m no good for anything anyway.” That happens.
But if we could just imagine, just for a little exercise here, that the boy doesn’t go back. And he stays in the pigpen and he actually copulates with some of the harlots and the prostitutes there and reproduces—reproduces—that children are born in the pigpen. His own children are born there in the pigpen with the other people who are in the pigpen also copulating, procreating and reproducing. Then let’s imagine that this fellow grows old and he dies in the pigpen—biologically, physically dies. He’s already been spiritually dead, but now he is physically dead. And then let’s imagine that his children grow up and they heard from time to time from their father that he had a life before the pigpen. Maybe he spoke about it once in a while. Maybe he reminisced. Maybe when he got drunk he babbled about it, or whatever. But they had an inkling that there was some other place that he had come from, that he hadn’t always been in the pigpen.
But then let’s imagine that they grow up and they reproduce in the pigpen and they get old and they die and they have children. And now these children are a couple of generations removed from the man who knew the house of the father. Then let’s imagine that they grow up and they reproduce and they die. And then let’s imagine that all of a sudden—well, really not all of the sudden, but after this process—it does happen that there are those there who have no knowledge, even by hearsay, of any house, of any father. Suppose that all they know is the pigpen. And they think that the pigpen is it. That’s their total experience, the pigpen.
And then we can imagine that life in that pigpen—or existence, because it’s really not life—according to the Scripture you’re only alive if you’re with God—many people exist, not many people live—but let’s imagine that there’s this existence in the pigpen. And then that pigpen has to get organized. You know, the pigpen is highly populated now. And then let’s imagine that the people get together and say, you know, “We’ve got to get together and do something about this life in the pigpen.” So then what happens? There develops pigpen politics. Pigpen law. Pigpen art. Pigpen therapies. You can imagine so-called healing services of the pigpen. The books that could be written, you know: Life in the Pigpen. How to Cope in the Pigpen. Being Happy in the Pigpen. Surviving in the Pigpen..
And then there could be counselling, for people who feel unhappy in the pigpen, to try to get them to come to terms with the pigpen, and to accept the pigpen. You just can imagine that there is this existence. And it would be almost impossible for anyone to know that they can get up and go back to the house of the father. They just do not know that it even exists.
Now making this kind of a meditation, it can be relevant to our time today because it does seem, pretty clear, that there are many of our brothers and sisters of the human race, people that we live with all day long and that exist with us, who have no idea whatsoever of the house of the Father. And when people talk about the house of the Father they think it’s just fantasy. They think it’s just the neurosis. They think it’s just “Oh, that’s just people having intimations of imortality which they don’t have. Why don’t they just be courageous, realistic and face the fact that all there is is the pigpen and there’s nothing else so you’d better make the best of it. And if you’re really clever you’ll learn how even to make out in the pigpen. You’ll succeed in the pigpen. You’ll have all the pleasures of the pigpen at other pigpen-dwellers’ expenses” and so on. But this is a tragic, tragic thought. Nevertheless it does seem to be so. It does seem to be so.
In his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis spoke about a kind of education and a way of living where the heart of the person—he called it the Tao—he didn’t want this to appear to be Christian apologetics, he was just speaking about human life—when he said that we can come to such a point where we don’t have the capability of intuiting anymore the true, the good, the beautiful, the divine—the house of the Father. And we have no idea that it’s even there. There’s nothing else but the pigpen.
So we Christians—or would-be Christians, or alleged Christians—we have to thank God that at least to some measure we know the house of the Father. And some of us would claim to know it pretty deeply, pretty immediately, because we know the life of the Church. We know the Scriptures, and the Sacraments, and the services and the Saints. We have the icons, we have all graces. We have the Lenten season. We have the Communion table. We have the beautiful vestments and robes that God puts upon us. We have the music and the singing that comes together even with that of the angels. We have that experience. And then when we do sin and do find ourself in the far country, we know what we can come back to. And some church fathers acutally use this parable by saying noetically, so to speak—spiritually in our mind—we go off to that far country probably a thousand times a day. We find ourself many times every day with our minds out in the pigpen. We find ourselves in the pigpen, forgetting the house of the Father, that we have to remind ourself again. And that’s why some fathers say that the forgetfulness of God, the forgetfulness of the Father’s house, is the cause of every sin. And that’s why we should go to that house frequently, regularly, never to forget that it exists, so that we can know when we are not there, when we have betrayed it, when we are in a far country, when we are among swine, when we are in the pigpen. And then we can come back.
But we also have to know—and be very, very merciful—that we may be living, and virtually certainly are living, with a lot of folks who haven’t the foggiest idea about the house of the Father. And what they read about in the newspaper, about the people who claim to have the Father’s house—their own prodigality, their own prostitution, there own pedophilia and sexual abberations and lechery and so on—they just think it’s a joke that there’s a house of the Father. So even when we try to convince them that there is, especially in words, they just laugh at us. They just think that we’re neurotic and crazy.
But we do have this marvelous priveledge as well as the absolute commandment of God to bear witness to the house of the Father to other people, to testify to it. And how do we do that? We do that by showing mercy. We do that not by sending care packages to the pigpen, not by affirming pigpen life but by acknowledging that there is the pigpen and by acknowledging that there are some folks who don’t know anything except the pigpen. And then we would beg God that we might be, for them, some kind of a presence, some kind of a sign, some kind of an indication, that there really may be something else other than the pigpen. There really may be a Father. There really may be a house of the Father. There may be a place that we can go to, even if it would not be so much a returning, although it may be a returning to the house that was known by my great-great-grandfather or something, my forebearer. But we have to beg God that we could be ourselves ambassadors of the Father’s house—presences, sacraments, signs, words—for our brothers and sisters in the pigpen. And we Christians, we live in two realities at once: baptized, sealed, believing. We know and live in the house of the Father. But, until the Lord comes in glory, we’re still living in this world and so much of this world is fashioned and formed and ruled and governed by the pigpen. It simply is the pigpen. So we are somehow in two places at once. But one thing is for sure: we should bring the Father’s house to the pigpen and not bring the pigpen into the Father’s house. That we should be first and foremost children of the Father who could then show to others—more by our deeds than by our words—that there is a Father, that there is a Father’s house, and that everything is not simply a pigpen.