Of what great blessings in my wretchedness have I deprived myself! From what kingdom in my misery have I fallen! I have wasted the riches that were given to me, I have transgressed the commandment. Alas, unhappy soul! Thou art henceforth condemned to the eternal fire. Therefore, before the end cry out to Christ our God: Receive me as the Prodigal Son, O God, and have mercy upon me. Doxasticon at Psalm 140 at Vespers for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Perhaps my favorite parable in the New Testament, the parable of the Prodigal Son makes us to recall why we need Great Lent prior to Pascha. We need Great Lent because we are exiled from God, just as the prodigal exiled himself from his home and became a slave in a foreign land. The prodigal's sin physically exiled him from his father. Our sin exiles us from communion with God, which is why we don't walk with Him in Paradise. This is not some metaphysical metaphor or allegory. This exile is ACTUAL, PHYSICAL and SPIRITUAL! If it weren't then why would we need the Eucharist at all Liturgies or confession or baptism? We wouldn't. Our bodies are physically removed such is why the sacraments are a part of our Christian lives.
The second lesson is repentance, which is the lesson for all of Lent. That very word began John the Baptist's and Christ's ministries. For those who decry Lent and see it as a bunch of legalisms that are incompatible with a modern, enlightened understanding of Christianity, repentance is unnecessary since their Christianity has been replaced by feelings. "To repent is not to feel dissatisfied, but to make a decision and to act upon it." (Lenten Triodion, 44), just as the prodigal says that he will rise and go (verse 18). Repentance is not just about feeling bad, it is admitting that we are alienated from God and that we need to do something about it. Christ has done the work so that we may follow Him; Christianity is not passive which brings us to another reason as to why we need Great Lent.
If repentance is the lesson of this Sunday and the whole of Lent, then Lent is the school to continually teach it, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann says. In school, we are taught and then must apply the teachings. Of course, there are way too many who think that merely showing up to the lesson qualifies for a passing grade. It does not.
So what is repentance? It is literally "a change of mind." The word in Greek is metanoia. The elements are "meta" which talks of change, hence in other words like metamorphosis and metathesis and "noia" from "nous" which is, according to St. John Damascene, the eye of the soul. Repentance is to change us, physically and spiritually. It is no mere lip service, it is not showing up for one or two extra services, it is not saying one more "Our Father" and it is not "going to confession once a year." Lent and repentance are not for us to get things legally in order prior to the next Lenten season. It requires and demands a change! Yes, going to more services, praying more and confessing are all great things to do, but unless they comprise your Christian habit, you will not be any different in substance!
As we come closer to the beginning of Great Lent, let us embark with the knowledge that we are exiled from God and that only by a change of mind, a change of our very selves can we enter into the Kingdom of God, our country and be received once more as God's child.