Audio length: 11:21 minutes
Saving repentance happens when we come to our senses, to our natural state and identity as children of God made in His image and likeness. By coming back to God we return to our true self; restored to God we become fully human again with the fullness of life.
Over 1700 years ago an infant lay sleeping in a cradle. A small swarm of bees settled on his face much to the great alarm of his parents nearby. However, the swarm rapidly dispersed and the baby’s father, hastening to the cot, found his child unharmed - but with drops of honey on his face. His parents took this to mean that the child would be honey-mouthed and speak sweet words of wisdom. The child’s name was Ambrose.
In adult life Ambrose became a highly respected civil servant and, notably, a pious, honest and good man. As was fairly common in that day a Christian might not be baptised until much later in life. Thus we encounter the extraordinary fact that, by popular acclaim, not the secret conclave of senior clerics, Ambrose was baptised and then ordained successively deacon, priest and finally bishop. He was to serve the diocese of Milan, the second city in Italy after Rome, and all this within the space of one short week. We know him now as St. Ambrose, the great saint and liturgist of the Orthodox West. He was in his own right a fine biblical commentator as well and it is to him that we owe these splendid words explaining the repentance of the prodigal son.
“He rightly returns to himself, because he departed from himself. For he who returns to God restores himself to himself, and he who departs from Christ rejects himself from himself….”
Saving repentance happens when we come to our senses, to our natural state and identity as children of God made in His image and likeness. By coming back to God we return to our true self; restored to God we become fully human again with the fullness of life. St Ambrose continues:
“He yet waits for the voice of your confession. For with the mouth confession is made to salvation, since he lightens the load of error, who himself throws the weight upon himself, and shuts out the hatred of accusation, who anticipates the accuser by confessing. In vain would you hide from Him whom nothing escapes; and you may safely discover what you know to be already known.”
Now the confession of the prodigal son, you will recall, was not his pre-prepared speech. His father ran out to embrace him before he had chance to say anything. His confession consisted, to use St. Ambrose’ words, in not hiding, coming out into the open, coming home; this and nothing more. The devil is the great accuser of the brethren. He knows all our sins. It is his speciality. But we shut out his hated accusation immediately we come back to God, and this of course is what the devil hates. We are restored by love and not by the measuring stick of the law, under which we are justly condemned.
St Ambrose says some beautiful words about this restorative love, the embrace of the father:
“.... He runs then to meet you, because He hears you within meditating the secrets of your heart, and when you were yet afar off, He runs lest anyone should stop Him. He embraces also, (for in the running there is foreknowledge, in the embrace, mercy) and as if by a certain impulse of paternal affection, falls upon your neck, that He may raise up him that is cast down, and bring back again to heaven him that was loaded with sins and bent down to the earth. “
Our heavenly Father embraces us, falls upon our neck, rejoices, and throws the heavenly banquet - just for us! Astonished, we sit down and eat. The Calvary sacrifice of the Eucharist feeds us with Christ God himself, no mere fatted calf. Against all expectations of those who measure things by rewards and punishments, by the unbending prescriptions of the law, God actually reveals his true self, manifested in Christ, the great Philanthropos or Lover of humankind. I leave the last word with St Ambrose, and it is a good word, if only we could remember it and live by it always:
“I would rather be a son than a sheep. For the sheep is found by the shepherd, the son is honoured by the father.”