Deepening Formation

Return of the Prodigal Son

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season as a graced opportunity to “return to God with our whole heart.” The Lenten pilgrimage of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is a time-tested and true pathway to our encounter with the mercy of God revealed in Jesus’ Paschal Mystery. We become, through this encounter, humble instruments of divine mercy to those in need. The Eucharist invites contemplation of the forgiving love of God revealed in Jesus, the incarnate face of divine mercy.

Many artistic masterpieces depict the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son, the quintessential parable of mercy. One exquisite painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is inspired by this familiar parable recounted in the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel. Here, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a 17th-century Spanish artist, offers a profound Lenten image on the “way of beauty” so that we may see ourselves in the forgiving embrace of God, the Father of mercy.

The Return of the Prodigal Son painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667/1670, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Murillo’s canvas is a snapshot, or simultaneous narrative, of various moments in the Gospel story. As we ponder the painting, we discover those parable moments. On the left, a young boy leads a calf away for the feast called for by the joyful father who wishes to celebrate his son’s return. On the right, a servant carries a tray with fine garments, signifying the son’s restored dignity as he returns to the family fold. An onlooker holds up a ring that symbolizes the reconciliation of the prodigal son with his estranged family. And the older brother looks on with resentment at this sudden turn of events.

The prodigal son and his father are locked in a merciful embrace at the center. The son’s tattered clothes and dirty feet are reminders of his destitution and tarnished identity. He symbolizes humanity, lost and alienated from God’s offer of friendship. The father leans over to embrace his son with all the tenderness of a loving parent. His hands enfold his returning son’s shoulders with tender joy and forgiveness. Even the family dog, a symbol of fidelity, leaps up with joy at his master’s return.

At every Eucharist, God’s mercy is extended to the community gathered in worship. In the face of this profound gift of divine mercy, we may reflect: how will I open my life to the outpouring of God’s forgiving love this Lent? And to whom am I called to be an instrument of God’s merciful love throughout these 40 days?

Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., is associate professor of Catechetics at The Catholic University of America. She is the author of Way of Beauty: Rekindling Eucharistic Amazement with Visio Divina, Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2023.