Christmas is such a melodic time of year. Everywhere we go, we are uplifted by—or patiently endure—musical selections. For many people, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" blends warm memories and a promise. Other holiday songs aim for the sentimental jugular, but none hit the target like this one. The reason is simple: the song title acknowledges the power of the word home. "I'll Be at Work for Christmas" doesn't have the same tug on the heart.
Our concepts and memories of home have particular power when they are pleasant recollections connected to Christmas. We recall gleefully diving into large family feasts—one for each set of grandparents, often on the same day. We saw aunts, uncles, cousins, the old folks, the young folks, and everyone in between.
Perhaps you recall wish lists and gift exchanges. At times, the results were predictable (socks, underwear, yet another bottle of Hai Karate). Other times, they were comedic, such as the time my grandmother apologized for not being able to find that record I wanted by Ted Zeppelin.
Who wouldn't want to be part of such a scene? What kind of family would want to shut anyone out of these kinds of festivities, or proudly keep themselves away from hearth and home? The sad but true answer is: far too many.
These are the families who think of the holidays as anything but a frolic up Walton's Mountain. They only see the ghosts of Christmases past. These unpleasant apparitions take the form of misbehavior, arguments, bitterness about who did or didn't show up at the gathering, and disappointments over gifts. The original hurt grows over the years with each retelling.
Such a family has two choices: keep the feud going or take steps toward healing it. It requires initiative, compassion, wisdom, and the ability to envision reconciliation to break the impasse. It takes someone with the qualities of God the Father.
The Prodigal Son and Christmas
Consider a gospel story that is rarely, if ever, associated with Christmas. This story has no manger, no shepherds or magi, no star, no bloodthirsty king. The element that makes this story so powerful is simple: a father watches hopefully down the road for his wayward son to come home.
It is my story.
The parable, found in Luke 15:11-32, does not give an exact age for the younger brother. But I like to imagine him to be in his early 20s, which is a profoundly dangerous period of a man's life—a time when he too often feels invincible but is walking headlong into a minefield. He believes the laws of man, God and nature do not apply to him, so hubris takes over. "Mines?" he asks. "What mines?"
That's exactly what I thought in my early 20s. The sound of the detonations could be heard from Texas to my native Michigan.
My plan to go south, make a bunch of money, and have fun came crashing down until I was homeless. But there were two saving graces. The first was the protective hand of God. The second was my parents' words as I headed out the door toward Texas: "You can always come back to the farm." I knew this was no empty promise.
What makes the prodigal want to go home? Perhaps he or she is in a life-threatening situation, in a spot so scary that they want to flee to the safest place they know. In the parable, the younger brother became so hungry and poor that he wanted what the pigs wouldn't eat. He decided it was time to swallow his pride and go home.
Jesus said the younger brother "came to his senses" and headed back to his homeland. So did I. With the exact amount of money for bus fare home, I boarded a bus in Houston and arrived home Sunday morning, Christmas Eve. The power of that gift, that open door, that second chance, sustains me every day.