Some years ago I read Henri Nouwen's book. The Return of the Prodigal Son which made a profound impression on me. The book takes the form of a meditation on the well-known parable from Luke's Gospel (15:11). The writer takes each of the characters in the parable and explores their relationship to each other. In so doing he discovers at a deeper level his own inner journey to God.
The movements of the parable from the younger son's return, the father's joy of welcoming back his son, the vengefulness of the elder brother and the father's compassion are drawn from Rembrandt's painting of the same title. The author draws on the themes of homecoming, affirmation and reconciliation - all of which resonate with our own experience of life especially when we have suffered loneliness, dejection, jealousy and anger.
It was a chance encounter with a poster of the great work of art by Rembrandt that inspired Nouwen to embark on his spiritual journey and write his beautiful meditation. The journey began in Russia, in St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, when he saw the original masterpiece by the great Dutch artist of the 17th century. It had been acquired by Catherine the Great in 1766.
I've just returned from St Petersburg, where I too have seen this wonderful painting. It was the final picture of the tour around the galleries and I was beginning to fear that we had missed it when suddenly there it was in front of me - full of the most incredible light with deep rich colours that seemed almost luminous. I was reminded of Nouwen's meditation - of forgiveness and inner healing.
Russia in the post-Soviet era is recovering its religious history and people are now allowed to practice their faith openly. The restoration of the desecrated Orthodox churches has given a new inspiration to the faithful. It is quite remarkable that during the Communist regime when all religion was banished, that faith was never lost. It remained hidden and was practised subversively and is now reemerging with renewed vigour.
The Return of the Prodigal Son is essentially a story of homecoming. As Christians we journey through life in anticipation of our eventual homecoming. We pass through the many and varied stages of life, weaving a pattern of relationships, but always with the hope of finding the Father and allowing the Father to find us: the One who loves us as a son or daughter. The Father blesses us in endless compassion, asking no questions, always giving and forgiving, never expecting anything in return. This, therefore, is our own vocation, to follow the Father.
Russia is a land of contradictions with a rich but brutal and violent history. As an emerging 'democracy' it still has the power to captivate and enthral the visitor as we struggle to probe its often impenetrable heart. Orthodox Christians can rejoice in their particular 'homecoming' as their faith is lifted out from darkness into the light.