The prodigal son was once an innocent child, and then he wasn’t. And now he wants to be again.
Last week‘s Advent focused on Hope by sitting with the Father on the porch, “actively waiting for that moment when the child turns home.” This week I’m inviting myself to return home with the son, who like the second week of Advent, is yearning for Peace. I’m spending time with Rembrandt’s painting and Nouwen’s book to cast new light on my favorite parable.
The prodigal son was a child, a young man, who declared in the most dramatic way, “Myself.” My daughter as a toddler would pull the heavy chair, screeching over to the kitchen counter, and climb up so she could push the button on the coffee grinder. Failing complete sentences, she would simply repeat, “Myself! Myself!” while shooing my help away. So yeah, the prodigal son delivered a slightly stronger version of this by taking his inheritance, disowning his father, leaving home, and spending it all on wild living. The cover photo above of a swashbuckling prodigal son, was painted by Rembrandt using himself as the model – how appropriate.
His independent streak ended like spilled coffee beans though when he ran out of money – and therefore friends – and took the lowest of jobs feeding pigs, just hoping for a few morsels of food. “Why shouldn’t I go home?” he thought, his health like his confidence reduced to nothing, “and say to my Father, ‘I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.’”¹
He was once an innocent child, and then he wasn’t. And now he wants to be again.
And now we begin to see in him a return to the gentleness, poverty, and purity of heart that show him becoming like a child again, the very requirement Jesus describes, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”²
Lest these qualities seem abstract, Rembrandt painted them right onto the canvas (see inset on right) – the ragged shoes torn nearly off, the shoulders slumped into the father’s chest, the heaving sigh of repentance. The differences are astounding from his earlier painting of The Prodigal Son in a Brothel above to The Return of the Prodigal Son on the right – painted 30 years later. The loud and proud partier with a wanna-be mullet melts into the exhausted, shaved-head sojourner.
To become the prodigal son is to become a child again. To return to the home that bore, nurtured, weaned, and set us on the path into life. Whereas the first childhood insisted on doing things “myself”, the second has already tried doing everything “myself” and found independence inferior to togetherness. This second innocence is not naïve, but seasoned, and making a conscious choice.
Once the far-country son makes the choice to turn around, there is still a road to be travelled before arriving at home. Nouwen uses Jesus’ words like Waze for navigation: “The Beatitudes offer me the simplest route for the journey home, back into the house of my Father”, he writes. “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers….”
On the face of it, Advent may seem to be about “going home”. If we’ve run in the far country long enough, we may have come to idealize home. But often the reason we’re running is to deal with the wounds of home; to change the patterns of thinking imprinted on us; to feed the nutritional deficiencies of our younger lives. Going home may seem like the least likely place to find healing.
But whether idealized or not, home or away, the Advent Season offers us something if we enter in. When we give space to bring our disappointment, stresses, and unfilled expectations before God, we find deeper places in the manger of our soul to receive the Christ.
We find deeper places in the manger of our soul to receive the Christ
We may have long ago sprinted away, we may now be sprinting through the deadlines of an American Christmas, gasping in the air of “myself” and exhaling a lesser version of the same. But the long walk home gives us time to think, as we breathe in the Beatitudes and breathe out wonder.
If I can inhabit the prodigal son this season – turning, then returning – then I can rest in the embrace of a Love that is not only on the porch, but running toward me.
♦ weekendswell ♦
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Cover Painting By Rembrandt van Rijn, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, c. 1637 – Public Domain, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. source: wikimedia.org
Inset Detail 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.