In the 1971 television movie The Homecoming, John Walton, Sr., is delayed in town on Christmas Eve. His wife, at home, learns there has been a train accident; it is the train John Sr., was to return on. So, the oldest son, John-Boy, is sent to find his father. Many things happen which prevent his going to his father. Finally, the father comes home—late, safe and sound. There is a tear-jerking reunion of husband and wife, who has waited up for him, wondering whether he is dead or alive. The movie pulls at my heartstrings every time I see a rerun.
A family homecoming is important regardless of who is coming—husband, wife, son, daughter, grandparents, friends. Or when. Homecomings are especially important to Americans at the two big celebrations in the near future: Thanksgiving and Christmas.
One of the Bible’s most famous homecomings involves the prodigal son in Luke 15. “Home” for this wayward boy stood for forgiveness but also for celebration of the son’s return. The father brought out the fatted calf, the ancient equivalent of our turkey, a robe and a ring—each symbolic of renewed relationships.
The celebration followed the classic scriptural pattern: sin, forgiveness and reconciliation. It celebrated the victory of grace over sin, a celebration that began with dancing, merrymaking and rejoicing.
I marvel at this father. He didn’t worry that the son might return to his former patterns of living. He celebrated at once. We tend to wait. “Let’s see. If Jerry shapes up, we’ll celebrate, but not before.”
Thanksgiving is the year’s great opportunity to celebrate family love and unity. It is recognized all over America as a day of homecoming. Instead some families turn it into Turkey Day.
How can we keep it a homecoming?
I think back to my childhood. The day was special for me when all the relatives came to visit. Big meal. Roast beef was seven pounds for dollar, hamburger five cents, liver almost free. We had roast beef. Dessert was chocolate cake with thick frosting. Dad sometimes brought home special treats from the store. Sometimes even the photographer came. And always, lots of talking, talking, talking. Homecomings need celebration.
Celebration defines and identifies us. Our extended family said to one another that we belonged together. Those who get drunk together say they belong together. Those who celebrate a wedding say they have friends in common. College homecomings mean all the attendees identify with a place—the school. At church celebrations, it’s identification with our common faith in Christ.
Those who celebrated the return of the prodigal son said, “We are a family.” They told the young man, “You are again a part of this family. We considered you lost, but now you are returned to us.” That was something he longed to hear.
Those who come together at Thanksgiving indicate that they cherish and hold in trust a shared family pilgrimage. For a short time, the whole family is focused in one direction. The members acknowledge they co-own certain experiences and are joint stewards of them.
Celebration affirms a person’s worth. When we celebrate God, we attribute worth to our Creator. When a family celebrates a child’s birthday, the youngster’s bright eyes speak loudly: “This is my day. My family thinks I’m special.”
The elder son stood outside in the field and did not celebrate. His actions said loudly, “Though you are my brother, you are not part of this family.” True homecomings are all-encompassing. There’s nothing left over with which to hate, or to be afraid, or to feel guilty or to be selfish about, says Frederich Buechner. The older son was still angry and jealous.
A homecoming celebration is a great leveler of cast systems. No celebration is possible if the successful family members sit at one table and the black sheep at another, or the powerful and important converse at the main table and the also-rans are stuck around the folding table with the children. At a thanksgiving homecoming each person affirms anyone who seeks family warmth. And mourn those who stand outside with the older brother and refuse to join the family group.
Celebration defines responsibility. The prodigal son was probably out working in the field the next day. Sonship has expectations. The gift of keys to a car at graduation tells the teenage: “You are old enough now to drive alone.” Thankfully, Thanksgiving is not a commercialized gift-giving event, but the college son or daughter returning home for the first time since school started in fall is now accepted into the adult group and is not forced back in the former teenage role.
Yet the spirit of celebration, even at very information celebrations such as Thanksgiving, can be lost. Why?
Wonderful but fragile
Celebration is something wonderful but fragile, like a delicate piece of crystal, shimmering and beautiful, but easily broken. Celebration moves us into another dimension of life, one we may be afraid to enter because we don’t know where it may lead us—the realm of the intangible, almost the mysterious.
Meaning at a celebration comes through the symbolic—songs, presents, food, dancing (children can’t celebrate by sitting still, why do adults think they must?), special words, including the language of poetry. This power of the symbolic is destroyed by too much practicality or a sense of oughtness. Controlled or managed celebration is not really celebration.
Celebration is not for busy people because it takes time. It can’t be squeezed into 50 minutes between seven and eight o’clock. Stolid, hard-working people don’t have time and interest for what looks like its superfluous aspects.
Celebration is easily killed by passivity of the participants, whether at home or in a congregational gathering. Especially spirit-killing are long, sleep-inducing reports at church events billed “celebrations.” Celebration give people a chance to talk, to laugh at themselves and their foibles. In the Middle Ages, the people enjoyed the Feast of Fools, a chance to poke fun at all the sacred cows without danger of reprisal. Celebration is a Feast of Fools.
Celebration is killed quickly by the attempt to substitute money and decorations for the spirit of celebration. A husband says to a wife: “Here, take this money and buy yourself something.” Or she says, “Let’s go eat in an expensive restaurant and really celebrate this time.” Celebration can’t be bought. It doesn’t heed turkey and trimmings. It can happen with liver and onions. But it does require risk to move outside.
Sometimes I watch people obviously celebrating something (the corsage and dress clothes are the giveaways), but they are sitting in stony silence, waiting for the event to end so they can go back to their mundane and practical routine. Thanksgiving celebration disappears when life together has disappeared and turns into an eating marathon.
A Thanksgiving homecoming is enhanced when we think of the other person before ourselves. Celebration requires a spirit of joy, thankfulness and especially trust. It is a kind of welcoming: “You are important to me. You are welcome here! We want you here!”
A welcome for everybody
Sometimes when we enter a home we recognize at once we are not welcome. Real Thanksgiving celebrations welcome each person who comes, not just the rich and famous. Hosts say loudly, “During this time that we are together, I have only you to think of, nothing else.”
Unless celebration includes every member of the family, it is not real celebration. I grieve for people in our congregations who have never been celebrated for themselves. They live alone, never observe anniversaries, never bother to celebrate birthdays, never sing in public, never give a speech, never sit on any committee or hear anyone commend them for anything.
They never have their name in print, except in their obituary, never have a balloon flown for them, never have their art work on someone’s refrigerator door. A real Thanksgiving celebration celebrates the unrecognized as much as the celebrities.
As families and congregations, we celebrate because celebration produces energy and strengthens vision—but it must be nurtured. And possibly the greatest nurturer of celebration at any season is the breaking down of barriers through forgiveness—especially the high walls caused by decades-old grudges, misunderstandings and wrongful deeds. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24). Strangers don’t need forgiveness, only friends and family do.
Retelling our victory stories
A Thanksgiving celebration always includes sharing the story of our lives, witnessing to what God has done. It is not a performance or a program. When the son returned, the father said, “Let us dance and be merry.” One commentator writes that the dancing here was possibly a ritual drama that reenacted the events of the last weeks and months in the son’s life. A group sang and acted the story of the leaving, what happened in the far country (only the son could have told them), the return, the reunion and the celebration.
In Scripture, a victory is always retold to the people in son and story. Deborah—poet, prophet and military leader—recited a great song of victory. Miriam danced before the Lord after the Red Sea victory and retold the story of the escape. The psalmist repeatedly praises God for his acts. When there is victory in discipleship, we need to rehearse the victory for others as we sit around tables and talk.
Faith is strengthened in the home and congregation by story-telling, stories about how the members worked through difficulties and rejoiced when life was good. Today television, especially sports, movies and videos, compete with informal story-telling in the home. And sometimes people have nothing to talk about. They have forgotten the story of the way they have come, to make the connection between the present and the past, which is the essence of celebration. Only with that connection can there be a forward look. When we tell our children what has happened in our lives, we show them how to identify the working of God in their own lives.
This article was first published in the November 1995 issue of Christian Leader. It is reprinted by permission and has been updated.