Monday, March 15, 2010

Lent IV - Fr Damian Feeney

This homily was given by Fr Damian Feeney, the Vice-Principal, at the Solemn Mass for Lent IV. More photos from the Mass can be seen here.

Famously, Phineas Fogg travelled around the world in eighty days, thanks to the vivid imagination of Jules Verne. His journey was brought up to date a few years ago by Michael Palin, as the ex-Python began a new career which would see him become one of the great travelogue writers. Fogg undertook a wager that he could travel, by land and sea, from the Reform Club in Pall Mall, traveling east, until he arrived back at the Reform Club, having circumnavigated the globe. Michael Palin achieved the same – or rather, he failed by a few yards. When he returned to the Reform Club on Day 80, he arrived to find that the Club was closed for refurbishment, and that no-one was there to let him in, thereby causing an embarrassing end to the series, and no doubt something of a logistical enquiry at the BBC as to why no-one had checked this basic information in the first place.

That small glitch apart, the thing which in my mind unites Fogg and Palin is that fact that they chose to undertake a journey which began and ended in the same place, but encompassed the world in its scope. They were both to return to the Reform Club – but surely it cannot have been the same place to them, possibly ever again. Their minds had changed, perceptions broadened, assumptions challenged, experiences enhanced. Each had journeyed to the far side of the world, and back – and between the beginning and the end there were stories, cultures, personal encounters, setbacks, frustrations, even trials. They could not return to base unaltered. They were changed people.

In T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, we are reminded that

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The parable of The Prodigal Son is another such narrative. It is the story of a journey which begins and ends in the same place, but a place which experience is to change. It is a highly sophisticated story, which means that it can be read in any number of ways. The son, only penitent because he is hungry, seeks to manipulate his Father but is overwhelmed by love. We are told nothing, but can assume, the sorrow and worry of the Father during the son’s absence. The Father, forgetful of his son’s lifestyle and wastefulness, is simply glad that he is safe, and has returned to the fold. The brother, patient and industrious, methodical and loyal, and deeply resentful of the mercy being shown to his idle waster of a brother. We can sit with all these characters, and identify with them just a little bit, and we can learn. Perhaps my favourite reading of the parable is that the Prodigal Son is actually Jesus himself, leaving the Father with his share of the Kingdoms grace and healing, going to a far country, and shedding those gifts upon humanity with reckless generosity before returning, broken and naked, to the embrace of the Father. It is a compelling, and beautiful reading.

Like Fogg and Palin, the Son returns to the place he started. But nothing is the same. He has been to the far country, has been changed by his experiences, and now sees his starting point not as a place of frustration but as a place of refuge. He cannot have been prepared for just how different a place it would be, however. He had envisaged a place of censure, of conditional love, of servanthood; what he gets is a place of joy, of celebration, of love. He sees the place for the first time, and it is beyond all his planning and his imaginings. He discovers a place where his assumptions have been turned upside down. He thought that his prepared speech would win a measure of forgiveness; he discovers rather that the forgiveness which was in place long before he uttered a word is the key to his own genuine repentance and reconciliation – a world away from the negotiation and transactional role playing he had thought would be necessary. For the first time, he discovers a place which is authentic – where he understands something of the true nature of his Father – a nature present all along, but to which he had previously been blind. The old ‘transactional’ order is to some extent still present in the words and anger of the older brother, who withdraws his good will when he realizes that the true love which the Father displays is, to our way of thinking and his, so manifestly unfair. He has remained in the same place. We are never told whether he eventually showed his face at the party. What we do know is that he has an equal place in the Father’s heart and the Father’s love.

How difficult it is to understand God’s love on this basis. We expect a love which imposes conditions – a love on our terms, which can be withdrawn when we are hurt, or when that love is thrown back in our face. But the Father will have none of it. His love is present, and especially for the loveless, that they might be come lovely. That love is one of the characteristics of the place that we thought we knew, but in Christ discover fro the first time – a place where love expressed in total mercy, is the balance of rights and wrongs, where forgiveness is both lightening fast and total, in a way that disarms and shames us.

We will be regarded in our parishes as (as Paul told Corinth) ‘ambassadors for Christ’, who is, of course, the ‘image of the unseen God.’ Through Jesus, we perceive the Father, and the Fathers actions, and the Father’s love. Perhaps the hardest and most alarming though of all about ordination is that we will have to model this love – a love which sweeps all before it, a love forgetful of who did or said what, who was irresponsible or prudent, but which will enable people to ask why we are so ready to forgive. I would love it to be said of me at my funeral that I was too ready to forgive. That reckless generosity of the Father is alarming and prophetic, and digs at the roots of transactional way of living which we erect as a defence mechanism so that we are less vulnerable, less prone to suffering. Today Jesus challenges that, by showing us not only the Father, but the place which seems familiar, and which we thought we knew, but with the eyes of faith we recognize to be the Kingdom which that Father has prepared for us, and which we discover, after all our striving and journeying, has been ours all along.