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This extended season of Covidtide (#covidtide) has been a liturgical season unlike any other.
For many of us, the restrictions on socializing have created isolation for some, while for others the advice to stay-at-home has given us too much of the same people.
This season has stirred up spiritual and emotional longings that push us to reexamine what “home” means—not simply as shelter from the weather, but as a place of safety, rest, knowing and being known.
Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal is spiritual writing for such-a-time-as-this.
His short book is a meditation on a single painting: Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal” based on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15.
Part memoir, Nouwen recounts the transformative impact of this painting on his inner life and outer relationships.
He reflected that: “The journey from teaching about love to allowing myself to be loved proved much longer than I realized.”
He carefully explores the meaning of the parable as recounted in the painting by inhabiting the characters of the younger son, the eldest son, and the Father.
In doing so, Nouwen gently reminds us of our need for the grace of God, the free gifts that God graciously offers, the jealousy and other difficulties that we may encounter as we witness others receiving God’s grace, and the opportunities each of us has to share the grace of God with others.
For Nouwen, he was led “from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing.”
Nouwen’s moving narrative opens the hearts of his readers to encounter God anew. As a whole, the book is an extended reflection on “home”—what is means to leave home, to stay at home, to share our home, and, primarily, to allow ourselves to be at home with God, our Heavenly Father.
I invite you to join me on a journey this Lent as we reflect upon Rembrandt’s painting that, as I have adapted Nouwen’s words: “contains not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell us, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people.
All of the Gospel is there. All of our life is there. All of the lives of our friends is there.”
Register for the Return of the Prodigal course HERE.
Tim Hartman is Associate Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. He is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with nine years of pastoral ministry experience who holds a B.A. in History from Stanford University, a MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Theology, Ethics, and Culture from the University of Virginia. His first book is: Theology after Colonization: Kwame Bediako, Karl Barth, and the future of theological reflection (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020).
Rev. Tim Hartman, PhD
Associate Professor of Theology
Columbia Theological Seminary