The scripture passage is from Luke 15. It is Jesus’ story about two brothers. The younger brother asks for his portion of the inheritance. Then he went into the far country and blew it all and came back to beg his father’s forgiveness. The father embraced him and gave him a party. Meanwhile the older brother who had stayed home was working in the fields.
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She was a young minister; it was her first Christmas season in a new church. The first week she was there a young man knocked at her door and came in and told her his story:
It seems he was an older brother in a family, where the mother’s favorite was a younger son. This elder brother had done everything he could to win his mother’s affection, never disobeyed, always done whatever was asked. The younger brother did nothing. But still he was the apple of his mother’s eye. A bar fight had killed the younger brother. But it only increased the prodigal’s grip upon the parents. The mother loved the dead more than the living. That was what was hurting the young man.
What could he do? How could he win his mother’s affection? How could he deal with the resentment of always being taken for granted? The young minister had no easy answer. It reminded her, she said to him, of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Did he know of it? He nodded. So would he help her act it out next Sunday in a sermon drama? Could he play the part of the elder brother, the part he seemed to live in life? He was a typical older brother, responsible, wanting to please, able to give up what he wanted for what this new minister was asking for. So he agreed.
The next day the young minister found her other players in a visit she made to the home of a tobacco farmer and his large family. Most of the kids were grown and they were fitting into the farm. But there was one, the youngest child, a teenager with long hair in a braid, obviously in rebellion. The minister said, “Would you,” speaking to the weather lined father and the young long-haired son,” Would you play the part of the prodigal and the father in the sermon drama next Sunday?” The father looked at his youngest son. She, the minister, could tell that they did not look at each other with much affection these days. The older man, looking at his son, said “I’ll do it if he’ll do it.” And the youngest son agreed.
So they gathered the four of them, on a Wednesday evening at the small church to rehearse. There were no lines to be learned, no props, and no costumes. “Just act it out,” she said, “as it comes to you.” The father and the teen-aged long haired boy started acting out the part of the prodigal coming home into the father’s embrace, the son kneeling, the father running and embracing. At first it was stiff, as stiff as their relationship. But slowly the old story got to them; the tempo changed. There was a certain openness to their embrace, a certain authenticity to it. The young minister found that she could hardly look at the stage without tears edging her eyes.
Now she focused on the second part of the story, the father and the elder brother, with the young man who had come into her office. He did not have to act at all. He was living the part. You could feel his resentment, his anger, always being taken for granted, always being expected to do whatever was asked of him, never appreciated, never a party for him, not even asked to the party of his brother. The farmer invited him into the circle. The young man’s anger flashed. He pushed away, resentment flaring, the years of being taken for granted all there on the stage.
“What would it take,” the minister asked, “to make this man feel accepted, to bring this son home?” “Nothing,” the father said,” he don’t want nothing to do with me. No wonder the story ends where it does.” The minister asked, “What would happen if you died? What would happen to your sons?” The farmer thought for a moment. “They’d probably kill each other, I reckon.” “Is there anything you could do to change that?” The farmer turned from the minister and was quiet for a long while. Then he looked at the one who was playing the part of the eldest son. He caught his eye. Slowly, so you could hear the old farmer’s arthritic joints crack, the old man knelt, never taking his eyes away from that elder brother. Then slowly, he stretched his arms toward him. The young man stared back, stunned. And then that angry, resentful face crumbled. And he dropped to his knees, embracing the old man. And the long-haired teenager wavered, and then he knelt, putting his arms around the two of them. It was the only ending.
The three of them stood, embarrassed. The farmer, gruffer now because of the tears, spoke to the minister:” Am I supposed to be like God in the story?” She responded, “Yes, sort of.” He said back, “Well, God doesn’t kneel; I won’t do that again.” The young minister asked, “Can you think of a different ending?” “Well, no, alright. I’ll do it one more time, next Sunday, but no more rehearsals.” The three of them went out of the church into the dark.
Sunday, the power of the word emerged from the enacting of the three of them. On the way out of the church that Sunday the old farmer tapped the minister on the shoulder and said, “I changed my mind about the kneeling part.” She said, “What changed your mind?” He said, “It is a big word you preachers use, Incarnation—God coming to us in Christ. That, I figured, is what you preachers call the kneeling of God.”
Back some two thousand years ago, a baby was born. And it was as if God slipped into the world one night when nobody much was looking, to kneel with outstretched hands toward you and me.
And that, indeed, may be the meaning of Christmas.
Dr. Robert E. Adrian is chief chaplain at Baylor University Medical System in North Texas.