Monday 29 August 2011

The Extravagance of Love

A reflection on Luke 15:11-32 by "Brother Placid"

There was a certain man who had two sons. And the younger of these said to his father, Father, give me that portion of the estate which falls to me. So he divided his property between them. Not many days afterwards, the younger son put together all that he had, and went on his travels to a far country, where he wasted his fortune in riotous living. Then, when all was spent, a great famine arose in that country, and he found himself in want; whereupon he went and attached himself to a citizen of that country, who put him on his farm, to feed swine. He would have been glad to fill his belly with husks, such as the swine used to eat; but none was ready to give them to him. Then he came to himself, and said, How many hired servants there are in my father's house, who have more bread than they can eat, and here am I perishing with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you; I am not worthy, now, to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants. And he arose, and went on his way to his father. But, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and took pity on him; running up, he threw his arms round his neck and kissed him. And when the son said, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy, now, to be called your son, the father gave orders to his servants, Bring out the best robe, and clothe him in it; put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Then bring out the calf that has been fattened, and kill it; let us eat, and make merry; for my son here was dead, and has come to life again, was lost, and is found. And so they began their merry-making. The elder son, meanwhile, was away on the farm; and on his way home, as he drew near the house, he heard music and dancing; whereupon he called one of the servants and asked what all this meant. He told him, Your brother has come back, and your father has killed the fattened calf, glad to have him restored safe and sound. At this he fell into a rage, and would not go in. When his father came out and tried to win him over, he answered his father thus, Think how many years I have lived as your servant, never transgressing your commands, and you have never made me a present of a kid, to make merry with my friends; and now, when this son of yours has come home, one that has swallowed up his patrimony in the company of harlots, you have killed the fattened calf in his honour. He said to him, My son, you are always at my side, and everything thing that I have is already yours; but for this merrymaking and rejoicing there was good reason; your brother here was dead, and has come to life again; was lost, and is found.

It was during my stay in the infirmary, one evening after Vespers, that Brother Maurus came to me. He was wrapped in smiles and looking beatific so a demon starting whispering in my ear "don't ask! don't ask!". This demon always makes his appearance on such occasions, this time I gave him short shrift. Would that I could always do so.
'Why are you looking so cheerful dear brother?'
'I have solved the problem of the physician and the anointing'
This was not, as you might suppose, a reference to my own experiences in the infirmary, about which I will write another time if God and the Prior spare me. No, Maurus was referring to an earlier conversation which we had had. Since I was lying sick at that time we had naturally enough fallen into discussion about St Luke the only doctor (Col 4:14) to write two books of scripture. We praised him greatly as the Evangelist who shows most clearly that our Lord was a man of prayer (cf Lk 3:21, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28) the sure basis for good health. Then we went on to compare one Gospel with another. Finally we became puzzled as to why it might be that St Luke was the only Evangelist not to mention the anointing of our Saviour by St Mary of Bethany shortly before His Passion. The other three have fully described this for us (Mk 14:3-10, Matt 26:6-16, Jn 12:1-8) and that for excellent reasons. Firstly because the Son of God Himself had said Wherever this Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world what she has done will be told in remembrance of her (Mk 14:9). And secondly since it was because our Lord praised St Mary for spending more than a years wages for an ordinary man on a single anointing that Judas allowed the devil to enter into his heart (Mk 14:10)
'You know why St Luke omitted the story of the anointing?' I asked
'On the contrary I know now how it was that he told the stories, for they were two one for Mary and one for Judas, but in a mystical fashion'
'Well, Brother Maurus if the Holy Spirit has enlightened you on the subject then it is your Christian duty to enlighten me also'
'And so I shall' he said, making himself as comfortable as the infirmary permitted as one anticipating a long tale.

'In the beginning of his Gospel account the good physician acknowledges not only that he is not the first Evangelist but that he has read his predecessors (Lk 1:13). The Doctors and professors of Holy Church, indeed, tell us that he wrote his account with those of St Matthew and St Mark at his hand and as his guides. He, therefore knew that our Lords prophecy concerning St Mary had already been fulfilled and that the origins of the traitors treachery had been laid bare.It was precisely because he was a physician that St Luke did not rest content with a physical description of the symptoms, as it were, of events but he desired to show their spiritual causes. Simply repeating what had already been well said did not fulfil his purpose so what he did instead was to recount two other stories which none of the other Evangelists describe in order to account for the one story they all tell but which he does not. And these stories reveal mystically why St Mary and the traitor behaved the way that they did.

'In the first episode St Luke tells us (Lk 10:38-42) of the occasion when our Saviour and His followers visited the house of Mary and her sister Martha in Bethany. While Martha quite properly and commendably busied herself in in order to the the needs of her guests Mary, as you know, behaved in a far different manner. Enraptured she sat at her Masters feet and drank so deeply the sweet wine of His words that she was oblivious to all else. In this complete surrender of herself, all that she was, all that she had, to Him alone we see foreshadowed her later pouring out of her substance over Him in an extravagant spending of the rich sweetness she possessed which, like all things, originally proceeded from Him over Whom she poured it. It may be also that because she alone of His disciples was so attentive to His words and Being that it was she alone of His disciples who understood the need for His anointing against the hour of His death. Martha however, like Judas later, complained to the Lord about this scandalous behaviour of her sister. This shows that the path of contemplation is difficult to understand for those not called to it, saint and sinner alike. Mark closely what follows though. Jesus defends Mary before Martha as He later did before Judas but O how differently they respond. Martha, because she is humble and sincerely loves our Saviour accepts His words and learns from them. She becomes a great disciple in her own right and is the only women of the Jews in all the Gospels who is recorded as recognising Jesus to be the Messiah when she says "You are the Christ, the Son of God" (Jn 11:27). Judas, hard hearted and proud does not accept any teaching he does not like even should it proceed from the lips of the Master Himself. And what a short step it is from judging oneself to be wiser than the Christ of God to betraying Him even to death.'

'Excellent, excellent, Brother Maurus' I exclaimed greatly impressed by his words and the wisdom and beauty they contained, 'you clearly show that what was later present in events was already present in  type. What is the second episode you mentioned though?'

'Ah yes' he said looking more thoughtful, 'the second is a somewhat more hidden prophecy although clear enough once to grasp the correct key. It is contained in the parable you in particular know so well Brother Placid. The one concerning the younger son who spends his inheritance in debauchery before coming to his senses'
'I know it very well indeed. So well that I can assert safely that it has nothing to do with the anointing by St Mary of Bethany'
'Does it not? Hmm. Listen and I will certainly show under a figure or type our Lord outlined all that was going to be important about the event He was mystically prophesying. The father in the parable is Christ Himself, the elder son Judas and the younger one Mary'
'How could it be that a woman would figure under the appearance of a man? It is not to be thought of. You cannot be right'
'You think so? In a single passage in the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:25-33) the Apostle identifies Holy Church as both the Body of Christ and as His Bride. If it is suitable to consider Holy Church as both male and female since in their intimate union the two become one flesh then it is proper to consider such a great contemplative as St Mary to be one with the Lord and so both male and female hence her appearance in the parable as of a like nature to her father in that story, Christ Himself as I have already indicated'
'Well, if, if I say, I grant your argument Maurus what follows?'

'Judas is the elder since he was selected and appointed to his part before Mary was to hers and, of course man was created before woman. When it says "a far country" in Scripture what is meant is Egypt and that stands as a sign of sin and oppression far from the promised land of God. By saying that the younger one went to such a place we are to understand that Mary was for a long time sunk deeply into a life of sin and folly so placing her far away from the Lord. She was in such a state at a time when Judas by contrast was by the side of the Lord, carrying out His commands and proclaiming His Advent. We should not wonder at this life of Mary's, she was clearly a person of strong character and such persons, especially womenfolk, if they are not found foremost among the saints will certainly be found first among the doers of lascivious wickedness. After some time in this life the younger son found himself feeding swine. The Jews, you must recall, have a perfect horror of pigs regarding them as the most unclean of creatures. There is great meaning, therefore, to be found in this occupation of the one who was steeped in sin. You and I were both but boys when we entered the Religious life but we have often heard those vivid accounts of sin that are retold to us by those brethren who have fled here as refugees from evil later in life'
'Indeed we have. And I never hear them but that I thank the merciful God for moving my father Tertullus to place me in the care of that Blessed Abbott of holy memory so that I might escape such gross sin.'
'I, likewise, have much to be grateful for. One of the things that these escapees frequently report is that while they took gladly to the sins of the flesh in their youth they did not long persist in that gladness. The more sated they became with their unnatural sensual appetites the more they came to realise what ugly, dirty brutish things they were. Despite this realisation though they found themselves by long established habit compelled again and again to sate those appetites they now despised. They longed to break free from them but lacked the strength to do so. This is the meaning of the feeding of swine. Mary fed her own lusts and longed to do otherwise.
'Then, in telling this parable, the Lord says the younger son came to himself  and resolved to break free from his long service to the bellies of pigs. Sacred Scripture tells us that we, male and female, were created in the image and likeness of God (Ge 1:26,27). When we come to ourselves, that is to say, we really come to God. The younger son in the parable like Mary of Bethany in life was moved by the Holy Spirit to look within. What he saw there, his God and true Father, gave him the strength to leave swinishness behind and travel with all speed back to his earthly father. The distance from the far country to the Promised Land is a great one but this father, a figure for Christ Himself, shortens it by running to embrace the returning fallen one while he was yet a long way away. And not only to embrace but to kiss, to clothe, to feed with the best of foods and to rejoice with all His household of angels and saints.

'The Evangelists do not tell us that the anger of Judas was most directed at St Mary for her extravagance. No, his fury was most greatly stirred by the still greater extravagance of our Lords praise for her and His prophecy, which was actually a command, that this act of hers would be told in her honour throughout the whole world. Judas would have been enraged that no such command had been made to recount the tale of his faithful and hard working service while this whore fresh from her adulteries was to be praised for an action that did not involve her stepping outside her own front door.
'The behaviour of the elder son in the parable is a perfect foreshadowing of those deeds of the traitor that we now know so well. When he heard that his bother had been forgiven and that all the household was rejoicing about it he became furiously angry. He had returned from the fields after his days works and so we can infer that it was dark. His refusal to enter a house that was full of light and joy is a sign that he preferred the darkness of pride to the light of the presence of Christ. Does that not remind you Placid that St John tells us "and it was night" (Jn 13:30) as the betrayer went out to betray.

'As he had gone to meet his younger son so now the father came to meet his elder, but what a different meeting it was! The hard heart of the elder son was not softened. All that he had to do was to accept with joy that his brother had returned from the realm of sin and death into the kingdom of light and life. In the same way all that Judas had to do was to accept His Lord's words in regard to Mary, he did not have to understand them simply to accept them with the same docility that the other Apostles and Martha had done. In return he would have received a throne upon which he would have judged the twelve tribes of Israel You may think that I am myself being extravagant with this comparison. Consider though just this one thing which shows that in a mystical fashion these two stories were and are but one story. The elder son suffered no loss or harm at all because of his fathers love for the younger one. Likewise Judas was not in the slightest little bit harmed by Jesus heaping praise upon Mary. The two were prompted to anger not because the lost something but because they envied someone. Those who will not rejoice in the good experienced by others condemn themselves to a thousand torments within their heart for every single genuine joy that they experience.
'Dear Brother' I said 'you have clearly applied yourself with great intent to meditating upon this matter and then taking the trouble to explain it clearly to me. So much so, in fact, that you obviously failed to hear the bell for Compline that rang some minutes ago. Unless you wish to experience the punishment that our holy Prior reserves for the bad, the hard, the proud and the disobedient (Rule of Benedict 2) then you must be gone and that promptly'

By then, however, Brother Maurus had somehow disappeared leaving only the suggestion of a "Deo Gratias" in the night air behind him.

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