Last week the Peace of Advent was seen in the prodigal son’s return to the father of Advent Hope from week one. This third Sunday of Advent – themed on Joy – I’m seeing myself in the older brother. And it’s not hard for me to do. Especially with the help of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and Nouwen’s book by the same name.
The Parable in the Painting
After setting aglow the embrace we long to be in, Rembrandt saves a little light to illuminate a third figure off to the right. It’s like he’s painted us in, asking us where we stand on this whole reunion thing. We’re offered a role on the stage (as either embracer or embraced), but we’re usually working too hard to waste time on sentimentalities, and choose the safe distance of the theatre loge.
Rembrandt is only showing what Jesus was saying. The story was first told in a hillside “theatre” with all the painting’s characters present: Jesus offering a father’s embrace, sinners listening for the voice of home, and the religious teachers protesting it all. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they say. And in response to this complaint, Jesus tells three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
If we want a cozy Christmas story – where the powerful one runs down the porch steps to embrace into the fray – then the prodigal’s father provides. Like a tiny nativity ornament twirling from a fir branch, the prodigal encapsulates the larger story of a Christmas baby sent into the fray by heaven’s lavish embrace. But the story doesn’t stop there, and neither does Rembrandt’s painting.
Instead, both circle back, like a professor scanning the class for the person who originally asked the question. Only now the question-asker is painted directly into the story, becoming a part of it. Not allowed to stay off the canvas, I have to look at this third figure directly and consider if it is me. Nouwen identifies him as the prodigal’s older brother: the standoffishness, the folded hands, and the lowered head – wanting to enter into the reunion and yet withholding.
The Older Son
This older son dutifully stayed home, but is now far away; just as the one who had run away is now home. The responsible, moral elder brother was doing everything expected of him and probably more. His disciplined ways show him as a master of delayed gratification – silently anticipating some lavish reward that was poured out– right in front of his eyes – onto his wild younger brother.
The wandering son returns, is embraced, and the celebration well underway before the elder son becomes aware of it. He was out in the fields, and when told the good news, “was angry and refused to go in.”
He is bitter because he has pushed himself when others haven’t. He is envious because someone is doing all the things he won’t allow himself to enjoy. Working in the fields, he pleased the father but never accepted the joy of having done so.
I’m glad Nouwen gave me the words to admit that years of living religiously, of pulling the party-line and pleasing the praisers, can produce a dried-up joy. When you just keep on serving without remembering why, it’s time to come in from the fields and find your way home.
Only you will take care of you. If we are pleasers, the thrill of achieving the patch on our shirt isn’t slowed down by asking if the patch is worth receiving. Or by qualifying who is handing out the patches. Advent seems as good a time as any to take stock of what we’re working so hard for, especially as the new year stands ready to accept our resolutions.
Recognizing I’ve lost the joy is the first step toward finding my way home. The elder brother of the story never realizes this, but the possibility remains open for us.
Lost in Advent
The Advent season teaches us to wait – no, it identifies the waiting already in us. For the brothers in our story this waiting is related to being lost.
The season of Advent (as opposed to Christmas) has always had for me a split personality. While its opening themes are Hope, Peace, and Joy, these only take on meaning if we are living in some element of Disappointment, Disarray, or Dissatisfaction. Some Decembers, I’m just fine on the fast track to Christmas, and don’t want to slow down for Advent. But other years I’m deep into the three D’s – and then Christmas feels dissonant. Meanwhile I’m surrounded by people in various lanes, slowing me down or passing me by, all in the name of the exact same holiday.
The Advent Season identifies the waiting already in us
The prodigal son is well in touch with Advent – he knows he is lost and waiting to be found. His older brother is not: presuming himself to be found, he is actually quite lost. This blind spot makes sense, given the usual admiration surrounding model kids, full of virtue, obedience, and hard work. “Joyful” does not often appear as an accomplishment on college applications.
“But when confronted by his father’s Joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden.” Because he does all the right things, his lost-ness is much harder to identify. It’s hard to reach, Nouwen says, “because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.”
But the father, the one waiting on the porch who ran to embrace the younger, goes out once again and urges the elder to come in. “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”
Because he does all the right things, his lost-ness is much harder to identify.
Joy is there for the taking.
This Advent I am asking how I can put down my work checklist and give the pen to God. I’m hoping God will write something rarely seen on a to-do list: Joy. But this Joy – that comes from the prodigal’s Peace of returning home, that comes from the Hope of a Father running off the porch to meet him – this Joy is hard to accept if I’m standing off with my arms crossed.
Feet settled, thinking I’m home. Hands folded, thinking I’m found.
But as in the story, I may have to become unsettled in order to find home. I may need to remember I’m lost, so that I can be found. And that is what Advent does.
Joy is there for the taking, but only if I get Lost in Advent.
♦ weekendswell ♦
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Featured painting by Michel Martin Drolling, Le Retour du fils prodigue, source: Wikicommons
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.