WE SHALL most come to life in Advent hymns, which place our dread and delight side by side in words and tunes which help to rationalise, or poeticise, a theology that we find hard to bear. “Wake, O wake! with tidings thrilling,” for example, when neither child nor judge is due, but a bridegroom.
As the four Sundays proceed, so does their solemnity. Nothing can be taken lightly. God is near. Realising how terrifying this could be for us, Jesus tells us a story about a bad-lot son and a forgiving father.
Here, it is the son who approaches, and the father who waits — a father who, like so many parents whose children have led them a dance and left them for years without so much as a letter or a telephone call, has been ever on the lookout for a familiar figure, his thoughts of reconciliation, not of blame.
This father sees a hungry ragged young man staggering home, so frightened of what he expects to hear that he has rehearsed a grovelling speech: “Disown me as a son, make me a servant — it is all I deserve.” The worst thing is that he cannot forget his father’s kindness and understanding: that young men have a right to their mistakes; for this son has been given his share of the family money when he asked for it.
Nothing had been put in his way when he said he was off to the big city. It was: “Take it; it was yours from the beginning. You can do what you like with it.” The son expected his father’s wrath, but would he have come home had he expected his father’s rejection? We sense that he would not have withstood the consequences of his wasted life, would have descended into vagrancy, sickness, and maybe early death.
We see boys and girls in big cities in cardboard boxes at Christmastime, in shop doorways. What parent stares through the window for a glimpse of them? What love was ever shown them? What an adventure it was when these sons and daughters ran off to the city lights.
Jesus’s tale is one of the oldest tales, and yet the most haunting. It says everything that can be said about our returning to our Father’s ways after doing what we like. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”
The Prodigal Son was a sorry sight, hardly recognisable as the boy who had left home full of high hopes, well dressed, confident; but he cannot be disowned or disinherited, because he is his father’s son.