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Headmaster Burke Delivers Opening Remarks on "Return"

During the first Corporate Chapel of the school year, Headmaster Burke delivered his Opening Remarks on this year's theme - RETURN - and the All School Read, The Return of the Prodigal Son - A Story of Homecoming. Seniors assembled in the gym as the rest of the students listened from their class gathering spaces across campus. 

Good morning! We offer a special welcome to our outstanding Board of Trustees President, Mr. Jim Elcock ’77, P’08, and to our new board members who are engaged in their orientation program.

How fitting it is that our trustees are seated in the balcony, a balcony that didn’t exist a few years ago, for a board of trustees always watches over us, taking both the short view and the long view in caring for our present and future needs, engaging in such invaluable work as fundraising and shepherding the design and construction of the buildings in which we gather this morning. Trustees are exceptionally bright, talented, devoted people who, like you and your families and our faculty and staff, devote themselves to advancing our school’s mission. They hire and support the Headmaster, oversee the School’s strategic planning, and maintain ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the institution. Largely unsung, they are our true heroes.  Let us express our tremendous gratitude to them.

I often proclaim that I have the easiest and the best job in America – serving a Catholic independent day school for boys with a clear, important mission, a unified, focused board, a gifted, devoted faculty, a talented, dedicated staff, loyal, engaged alumni, and truly great young men from wonderful loving families. Each of us plays a vitally important part in this symphony of love we call St. Sebastian’s School. We are one.


I selected The Return of the Prodigal Son – A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen as our All-School Read last spring when we were 100% engaged in distance teaching and learning. Soon afterward, the word Return all but presented itself as our year’s theme.

Before last week, we hadn’t held a class on our campus since March 12.  Return we devoutly hoped and return we happily have, thanks be to the grace of God and to the generosity and heroic efforts of our Board of Trustees, our faculty and staff, and many other members of our St. Sebastian’s family who have so freely and fully cooperated with God’s grace. We all feel truly blessed and so very, very grateful.

If we hope to continue to offer on-campus education, we simply must step up our commitment to the safety precautions laid out in the St. Sebastian’s School Covid Compact. We know that it is the weekend congregation of large numbers of people that shuts down schools and communities. Mitigating the risk of transmission is everyone’s responsibility, and it’s a seven day a week day and night job. We are one and we need everyone to work together in harmony.  No one knows how long it will be before we can gather without masks.  The future is unknown.  All we have is the present. Let us resolve to live each present moment freely, fully, and safely.

To focus us on the present, I offer this passage from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.  The speaker is Screwtape, the devil writing to a devil in training. The Enemy to whom the devil refers is God.  You got that? It’s a total reversal, but very instructive. Listen carefully:

The demon Screwtape writes:] The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past. But this is of limited value, for they have some real knowledge of the past and it has a determinate nature and, to that extent, resembles eternity. It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.

The present is all lit up with eternal rays. Oh, man, do I love that line.  We have this moment, guys. We have God. We have our families. We have one another. How blessed are we?  As I mentioned last week, if we all behave as though we have COVID, we will take all of the necessary safety precautions, for we live for the Lord and for one another and not for ourselves alone.

Our All School Read is a little book with a big impact. Inspired by the parable Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son, 17th Century Dutch artist, Rembrandt Van Rijn, painted a masterpiece. Acquired by Catherine the Great in 1776, the huge 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide work of art hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In 1983, Dutch Catholic priest, professor, theologian, and writer, Henri Nouwen, cast his eyes upon a print of Rembrandt’s famous painting, and he went deep with it, and I mean deep. His burning desire to view the original was satisfied in 1986, when he traveled to St. Petersburg and spent several graced hours perusing the painting, which captures the moment of the wayward young man’s return to the arms of his loving father.

The book, published in 1994, takes us on Nouwen’s journey from his first encounter with a print of the painting to his trip to see the original in the Hermitage and ultimately to his deep analysis of the painting and of the parable.

I find it fascinating that both the painter and the writer were Dutchmen, who lived some 300 years apart, and that both the painting and the book were among each man’s last works.  Clearly, each was drawing from a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom.

I hope that your reading and viewing experience has given you a deeper understanding of the New Testament parable and a greater appreciation for the finest of fine art.

As we segue to Return from last year’s theme of Faith, I offer these two sentences from Nouwen’s book:
Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.
There is a loving God waiting for me at the very center of my being.

I could pretty much end right here, but I won’t.

Dictionary definitions of Return include: to go back or come back again, to restore to a former or to a normal state, the act of coming back to or from a place or condition.

In an explication of the obvious, Nouwen writes: Implicit in the return is a leaving.

You will not have to search far and wide to find the word return in the Old Testament.

From Job: If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored.

Jeremiah: I will give them a heart to know me, for I am the Lord; and they will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with their whole heart.

Lamentations: Let us examine and probe our way, and let us return to the Lord.

Malachi: Return to me, and I will return to you.

And, finally, Isaiah: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows, and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be, that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but will do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

Our faith teaches us that Jesus is the eternal word our Father sends from heaven to earth to save us and then returns to heaven.

Homer’s Odyssey and many other literary works from antiquity onward follow the same quest formula: separation, initiation, return. Separation, initiation, return. The protagonist leaves home, faces challenges, and returns a changed and changing person.

I believe it is this quest formula that poet T.S. Eliot points to in these memorable lines:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Let us turn to the parable as presented to us in Luke’s Gospel:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.

When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men...” So he left the place and went back to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.  He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.  Then the son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.

Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his loose women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.

The father said, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.

Our faith teaches us that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that we are called to live happy, healthy, holy lives of love and service in this world and to strive for eternal joy in the next.

To be prodigal is to be wasteful, to spend money or resources recklessly.

The passionate younger son is in a hurry. He wants his money now, so he can rush out to a distant country and initiate himself in a life of pleasure, but that distant country proved to be no abiding place, and, in fact, it suffered a severe famine. As has been said, money can buy you everything but happiness and a ticket to any place but heaven. Might the distant country represent a condition or way of being far removed from the way the younger son, in his heart of hearts, truly wants to live? And might the severe famine represent the emptiness of such a life?

My friend, Michael Gaynor, Executive Director of Admissions at Villanova, asserts: There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are humble, and those who are about to be.

The younger son was not at all humble before his separation and initiation, but he sure is now. In advance of his return, he examines his soul and rehearses his confession: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.  Clearly, somewhere deep inside, even though he had misbehaved egregiously, he knew he could go home.

And what happens next is one of the most beautiful things in all of the Bible, in all of literature, in all of the universe – While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy.  That he saw his son while he was still a long way off suggests that the father never stopped pining for him, never stopped watching for him, never stopped hoping that his son would return. Then what did the old man do? He ran. Ran!  This tiny, three-letter past tense verb is one of my favorite words in holy scripture. On it hangs the essence of the parable. Ran so clearly celebrates the blessed truth that our God is not a reluctant God. Think about it.  We’re all sinners. We all make poor choices from time to time, but when we do, if we humble ourselves and summon the courage to turn to God, we will come face to face with the truth expressed by Sister Miriam Pollard: There is nothing we can do that God is not eager to forgive.

Ours is a merciful God. We don’t have to earn or merit or deserve His love. It's unconditional love, for God is love. God cannot be unloved. And we love because God loved us first. He gives us free will so we can choose to love, we can choose to turn away from love, we can choose to return to love,  and when we do, He runs to us. Let us embrace the truth that each of us is God’s beloved.

Nouwen muses that this great Rembrandt painting of father embracing son might be more properly titled The Welcoming of the Compassionate Father, for from him comes all of the light, to him goes all of the attention.  And the author adds this reflection on the beautiful scene: In the context of a compassionate embrace, our brokenness may appear beautiful, but our brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it.

And what great commentary Nouwen provides on the father’s hands. The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular...that hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold...How different is the father’s right hand! That hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender...It is a mother’s hand...The Father, Nouwen asserts, is not simply a great patriarch...He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present.

So there the younger son is in his loving father’s embrace, repeating the words he has rehearsed, but before he can utter the final lines treat me as one of your hired men, his father has already turned his attention to celebration. He never asks his son a single question. All he feels is joy. My son was lost and now is found. He has returned, and that’s all the matters. And believe me, that’s all that matters to your parents, and when you’re a parent some day, you’ll understand that. His son was lost and is found, was broken and is whole.

The older son, however, feels no joy at all in his brother’s return, only resentment, and as Nouwen reminds us: Joy and resentment cannot coexist. Choose one. The older son had been obedient to his father, but apparently had stayed and obeyed out of a sense of duty, not of love. In his heart, he was not deeply connected to his father. Fuming with resentment, jealousy and anger, he refused to enter the house where the celebration was well underway. ...his father came out and began to urge him to come in. But he responds by getting in his father’s face, essentially accusing him of favoring his good-for-nothing younger brother. The father responds compassionately: My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.

Because the parable ends there, we don’t know whether the older son swallows his pride and joins the celebration, which is to say that we don’t know whether he humbles himself as his younger brother did or whether he is still numbered among the people who are about to become humble. We can only hope that he will choose joy; we can only hope that we will choose joy, for we know that resentment is drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.

There’s plenty of love to go around, so we should never feel diminished by the good fortune of another, points Nouwen makes clear in another of his books, writing: When we truly enjoy God’s unlimited generosity, we will be grateful for what our brothers and sisters receive. Jealousy will simply have no place in our hearts.

If I were asked to share my all-time favorite quotations, this one by St. Augustine would certainly be in the running:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Through Jesus’s teaching and Nouwen’s writing and Rembrandt’s painting, we know that that the prodigal son finds rest in the Lord. May the same be true for all of us this day and forever.

We’re at the very beginning of our 2020-2021 journey, and we have an awful lot of work to do. We devoutly hope for success as individuals and as a St. Sebastian’s family. As we call one another to ever rising peaks of excellence in body, mind, and spirit, and as we battle the diseases of racism and COVID-19, may we love God, work hard, and take good care of one another every sacred step of the way.

Please know that we love you and that we will forever. Let us be fully present to every sacred moment – all lit up with eternal rays.

Students watch chapel on a screen
Students watch chapel on a screen.