Wednesday, 21 April 2021
THIS coming Sunday, the third before Lent, is traditionally known as Septuagesima, meaning 70th in Latin.
It marks the period of 70 days from that Sunday to Easter Saturday. It was known as the “Sunday of the Prodigal” because this parable of the wasteful, or prodigal son, was usually read on that day.
It is the Whatever You Do, I Love You parable, as Michael Mayne, former dean of Westminster Abbey, describes it in his beautiful book God’s Consoling Love.
It is a challenge to talk about God. But even the most perplexed theologically finds some understanding in the image of the all forgiving father of Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 15.
There is the prodigality of the younger son who wastes his father’s hard-earned money and the father who is prodigal, wasteful and extravagant with his love.
Some years ago, after many years in ministry, I realised to my horror that I had no understanding of the meaning of the word “God”. I took it for granted.
With a bit of digging, I discovered that it could come from the Anglo-Saxon root for good, indicating divine goodness. It is more likely to have had a Germanic origin, itself derived from the Indian sacred language of Sanskrit; a word meaning “the invoked one”, the one who is prayed to and called upon, not just when we hit a thumb with a hammer, but in real devotion and the recognition of something greater than ourselves.
How do we communicate anything meaningful about that which is beyond our human understanding, the source of our being?
I can certainly understand the frustration of the atheist. How is it possible to contain such a thing in human speech? Surely it is beyond the capacity of mere language. The ordering of words to complete an English language GCSE exam is hard enough. To express the meaning of life is a step beyond.
But human beings have a tremendous curiosity, seeking answers not only to the scientific questions. How does that work? What is the physical force that makes that happen?
But also the “why” questions. Why are we here? Why is the world like this? Why do good and bad things happen?
For some, the answers to the big questions of life are found in the concept of God. For many, this will be more than just an intellectual reality. It will be a personal and spiritual truth — a matter of faith, a matter of wisdom.
Some of that wisdom will bring the rather unpalatable realisation that this God, this love, this forgiveness, might very well be a mystery which is beyond our understanding.
For some, like William Wordsworth, their spiritual enlightenment will come through a vision of nature: “I have felt the presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and spirit that impels.”
I believe that the story of the Prodigal Son of Septuagesima is one way to begin to understand that mystery. It reveals the sort of God who says to the boy who wants to come home, “Whatever you do, I love you. You are my son.”
01 February 2021
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