When the father runs off the front porch, down the pathway to meet the son staggering home – THAT is the Christmas story. All those months waiting on the parental porch, hoping for a return, praying into embrace, THAT is Advent.
Our Christmas morning wrapping-paper-flinging has always been preceded by a retelling of the Christmas story – but this year it will be different. Wanting to keep the true meaning of Christmas ahead of the gifts, we’ve read about Mary and Joseph (or Jophus, as my bride pronounced it as a kid), the shepherds and the starry night that always makes me think of Van Gogh’s painting. Once the kids got older we’d mix it up with different versions and voices, one year honoring their high school classes by reading it in Spanish.
But this year I’m going a different route. I’ll be capturing the essence of Jesus’ birth with a story Jesus told: the prodigal son. Those who know me will know it’s my favorite of the parables, the one story where I can relate to all 3 characters. It’s deep in me, but may have sprung from author Henri Nouwen’s lovely book that reflects on Rembrandt’s tender portrayal of the return of the prodigal son. In it he examines each: the son who lives wildly with his father’s money, and now humbled, returns home; the father who sees him a long way off and unexpectedly runs to embrace him; the older brother who has joylessly served at home and resents this reuniting.
Back to the porch though: the waiting, the pain of separation, of wondering and not knowing. This is the lot of the parent. Thinking all is well inside the house (but we’ll get to the older brother next time), the father in this story is actively waiting – it’s no coincidence he can spot the son, “A long way off”.
They say you’re only as happy as your least happy kid. The parent’s porch is where imagination runs wild. Whatever trouble your kid is in, your mind doubles it and plays it forward twenty years to destruction. The bible itself does this – with frequent prophetic illusions to the end of all time, often correlated with the bad behavior of its audience.
A strand of hope
But there is another thread. Both the Christmas story and the parent’s heart weave a strand of hope into all this dire realism. Both are ready to run, in the most undignified way, out to reunite with the wandering child. This parental love can best be described as prodigal: “Spending resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant; giving something on a lavish scale.” (see more visions of this lavishness in my post A Wasteful Embrace)
December may find us out living as if the world is owed to us (the prodigal son), or dutifully in the kitchen doing what is expected of us (the older brother). But the Advent season invites us to spend the month of December on the porch with the father. Actively waiting for that moment when the child turns home, praying that thread of hope into the disappointments around us, ready to run toward embrace.
When you long for the world to be restored, with the scrubby weeds of hunger and abuse and addiction dotting the garden of Eden, then advent is upon you. Take some time to inhabit the heart of the father in this story. Writes Nouwen, “If I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God’s love and discover that God’s vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch but rather that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude.” OK, it’s kind of a run-on sentence, but worth it.
When the Prodigal Father runs to the returning Prodigal Son, dust kicking up into sweat – within that 100-yard dash is the incarnation.
When the Prodigal Father runs to the returning Prodigal Son, dust kicking up into sweat – within that 100-yard dash is the incarnation, God becomes flesh, the Christmas story. Take a moment here, where the porch encompasses the Advent season, to anticipate the areas of your life and our world needing restoration. The porch parent is ready to embrace it all, even if we’re “A long way off”.
“I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal, and offer a festive meal must become my own.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son
♦ weekendswell ♦
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Painting By Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661-1669 – Public Domain, source: wikimedia.org
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Return of the Prodigal Son: Story of Homecoming. Darton, L. & T., 1994.