The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1667/1670
National Gallery of Art
It could be said that the story of the Prodigal involves a relationship between father and son; but so does the story of the Nativity. Indeed, the pillar, the same thing that underlies each story, is a God who loves us so much that the grace of that love cannot be measured. When we, the Prodigals, respond to that love, the result is forgiveness and reconciliation. This is not to say there will never be consequences from sin. In both the Prodigal’s world and in the world of the Nativity, there was imperfection and pain. But separation from the love of God is never the end of the story.
It also could be said that the story of the Prodigal involves redemption in an individual sense whereas the Nativity involves redemption in a collective sense. But, in fact, the individual reformation of the Prodigal is not distinguishable in kind or degree from the transformation – the commitment – which faith in the Nativity demands of each of us. The Nativity is the story of the Prodigal multiplied by as many humans as there exist on earth. In the Nativity, humankind itself is the Prodigal: stained by Adam’s sin, lost, humankind achieves reconciliation with the Father through the victory of the One who leads the way. Because the bottom line is that as far as each individual is concerned, any amount of sin is unacceptable. We are all Prodigals, but the hope of the Nativity is offered to each, individually.
Raphael, The Madonna of Foligno
(at the Vatican)
Thus, as viewed through the lens of comparing what it is that is demonstrated by each story, the differences melt away. In each story, the one who falls short is offered a cup that overflows with abundance of forgiveness and love, a love whose limits are boundless for the one who accepts the offer. When we accept this offer, the liberation from sin and death is complete. We are freed from a life of deprivation and eating slop intended for the pigs. We can come into the knowledge of who we truly are: God’s beloved children, liberated by Grace.
Hence we celebrate the birth of the One who made it possible. Just as the father of the Prodigal could see the end, we too know the ending; the victorious triumph over sin and death. We thus sing: “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, Let Earth Receive Her King!” And we sing: “Peace on Earth, and Mercy Mild, God and Sinner Reconciled!” A message of love and reconciliation. That’s what it’s all about. A timeless message from an unbounded, timeless God, a God who beckons us with open hands, saying, “Welcome home, beloved Prodigal.”