In Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, he writes about his relationship with a work of art, Rembrandt’s famous painting of the prodigal Son and the Father, in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It depicts the famous parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel about a son who asks for his inheritance early, goes out and squanders it all away, and finally returns home, ashamed, scared, and penitent.
You’ve probably seen a copy of the painting at one time or another. It shows a fairly dark background, full of shadows, with a number of different people looking on. In the foreground, there’s a young man kneeling, embracing an older man. The young man is wearing rags while the older one is draped in finery. The older one has both hands on the back of the young man, as if to say, “It’s all right now. You are home. You are forgiven.” As Nouwen contemplates the painting, he does what Jesus would probably have us all do when we hear that parable of the prodigal: Nouwen places himself in the story. He is quick to identify with the younger son, the one who runs away, almost spends away his life, and finally returns home in humility. But he also identifies with the older brother in the story, who resents the fun and freedom enjoyed by the younger one and is furious at the forgiveness of the Father. But it’s difficult for Nouwen to go further in identifying with the characters in the story.
He writes, “For a long time the father [figure] remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy. The father [or mother] was a place to return, the goal of my journey, the final resting place.”
Nouwen’s own story progresses. His faith grows and he feels like God is trying to teach him something through the art of Rembrandt. Finally, he begins to sense that God is called him to identify more with the father in the parable. He’s being called to step into the role of the Father– to offer forgiveness and acceptance, to offer loving guidance, forbearance, and hope. He is being called upon to point to the love of God our heavenly parent, but at the same time, not to relinquish his own role in forming and offering help to others.
As the [parent] I have to be free from the need to wander around curiously and to catch up with what I might otherwise perceive as missed childhood opportunities. As the [parent], I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that the real joy and real fulfillment can only come from welcoming home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return. (p. 132)
Nouwen is called to grow up and grow into spiritual parenthood.
Parenthood comes in many forms. Some become parents in a carefully planned and organized way. Others have parenthood put upon them unexpectedly. Still others (while not having children of their own) might find themselves in the role of parent, or foster parent, or aunt or uncle, or friend in a more circuitous, mysterious, God-filled kind of way. Some have a strong and preconceived idea of what parenthood means, and might miss other ways of being parents as God presents them.
In today’s scripture we see a snapshot of Joseph as a parent.
Earlier in the Christmas season we heard how Joseph received a visitation from the Angel Gabriel. It came as surprise. It came as shock. It was different from what he had imagined it might be and it may have taken a little while for God’s plan to sink in. But eventually, Joseph is “in.” He’s completely dedicated to Mary, to the Baby Jesus, and to God’s will for their lives, come what may. Christian Tradition has often imagined Joseph as a much older man who had already had children who had grown up, for the most part. Whether he did, or didn’t, we don’t really know, but in any event, what is striking is the degree to which Joseph steps into the role of parent and is willing to do anything for the welfare of his child.
In today’s Gospel we hear of some of the challenges that confront this young family from the very start. And yet, Joseph and Mary move forward, unafraid, with new-found confidence and faith in God. Joseph is warned about King Herod’s plan to destroy all the male children in the realm, so Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and goes to Egypt. He’s still worried even after Herod’s death, and they eventually settle in Nazareth.
While we don’t know the details, it seems like Joseph continues to protect and lead. We can imagine him showing Jesus how to work with wood and how to continue in the family business of carpentry. We read about how, when Jesus is a little older, he wanders into the temple gets into conversations with the rabbis there. Joseph must have watched and see the way in which Jesus was heading, the things he was interested in, and gently guided him along the way, as best he could. He probably still worried about Jesus and worried about the future, but he did his best to steer Jesus in the right way, and then he trusted God.
The Gospel we have heard today is sometimes used on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, when much of the Christian Church observes the Feast of the Holy Family. The Holy Family usually refers to that intimate cluster of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and many a preacher will draw conclusions that suggest the modern family should look much the same. But I wonder if God’s vision of Holy Family isn’t much larger? Didn’t Jesus say as much again and again? When asked about his family, Jesus points all around him (babies and old people, rich and poor, pleasant and unpleasant) —not in any way to ignore those who had brought him into the world and nurtured him, but to expand it to include all those who followed him, who loved him, and who sought to love God through him.
At our 11 a.m. Mass we baptize Jeremy and Thomas Dubois. As with other baptisms, there are godparents, or sponsors, to use the technical term that has been used since the early church. And I know that, as with other baptisms, no matter how mature or experienced or holy the godparents and sponsors might be—they will be nervous. What does it mean to answer “yes” to the questions asked in the Rite of Holy Baptism? “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”—that’s a pretty big question. “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” — another HUGE question.
But just because we may not stand literally as a sponsor for one being baptized, as the Body of Christ, as representatives of the Church Universal, we share in that dedication. We share in being responsible for helping people grow in the faith. We are, each of us, called (at some point or another, it might be today or next year, it might be this week, or far in the future) but we are each called to grow up in our faith and to serve as spiritual parents for others. We’re called to do what Nouwen said so beautifully, “to welcome home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and to love them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return.” If we’re able to do that – to welcome, to receive, to love—then we will continue to grow into God’s Holy Family in this place and beyond.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.