“Could it be?!” The approaching silhouette of a young man on the horizon causes the aged man to leap from his seat and bound across the field, his feeble limbs now nimble with hope. He catches the young man, who collapses in tears and sobs. He weeps and clasps him to his chest. “Oh, my son,” he whispers in absolution. “Oh, my child.”
The tender parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) stands out as perhaps the most intense and memorable that Christ ever told. Portraying the merciful love of the Father, Jesus depicts repentance and forgiveness as a process of returning home. This coming home to the Father is the core of salvation history, taking place on the path laid by Jesus on His way to Calvary.
Reflecting on these mysteries, the musician Josh Garrels composed a rich and incisive album entitled Home. It is evocative and passionate, steeped in Scripture, replete with personal experience, and spiritually edifying. As one review puts it, the album “explores themes of pilgrimage, community, forgiveness, sonship, mercy, and the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine.” Over the course of the 11 tracks, Garrels praises God’s beautiful creation (“Colors”), weighs up a life of temptations and regret (“The Arrow” and “Leviathan”), and sings an ode to spousal love (“Heaven’s Knife”). The album finishes (before the final “Benediction”) with a depiction of an immensely powerful homecoming in the song “At the Table.” It is an honest and heartfelt dialogue between a son and his father.
I went the ways of wayward winds
In a world of trouble and sin
Walked a long and crooked mile
Behind a million rank and file
Forgot where I came from
Somewhere back when I was young
I was a good man’s child
The reference is clear: the prodigal has traded his home for sirens’ songs. His is the dissipation in every soul. While the son is throwing away his innocence with his premature inheritance, the father prays unceasingly:
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me
By the grace of God, the son converts. Casting off the yoke of his enslavement to sin, the son begins the long return. Without question, every mile bears the weight of regrets and doubts: “Surely, my father could never stand the sight of me; he will deny me and turn me away.” Despite any misgivings, he soon crosses the streams he used to swim and the fields he used to plow. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20).
This compassion is at the very heart of a home. This is why Garrels lauds it so wonderfully in his album and why this song so marvelously integrates all his themes into one. As Pope Francis said in his Homily for the Mass for Families in 2015, “in the Year of Mercy, every Christian family can become a privileged place on this pilgrimage for experiencing the joy of forgiveness.” This focus on mercy in the home is derived from the very nature of the household: a community bound by more than blood.
Forgiveness gives new life. “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:32). When we suffer divisions and pain, the home is a place where people ought to find healing. Words and deeds need to be poured out both in sorrow and forgiveness as well as in thanksgiving and rejoicing. Mercy is a virtue that takes great effort, but which ultimately makes us resemble God Himself. Accepting forgiveness is also notoriously difficult, yet it is essential for salvation.
The lessons of the prodigal son apply not only to those who flee from their families, but also to us sinners who forsake charity, abandon our divine adoption, and transgress our heavenly Father. We find ourselves as exiles, pilgrims, and sojourners wending our way through the valley of tears. There are surely days when the sun breaks through treetops, companions lighten the load, and signposts point the way. Yet the valley also has many twists and turns, forks to dead ends, and not a few who would lead us astray. All the while, the Father is singing “Come on home, come to me. There will always be a place for you at my table. Come to me, oh my child.”
So I put my hand upon the plow
Wipe the sweat up from my brow
Plant the good seed along the way
As I look forward to the day
When at last I see
My Father run to me
Singing ‘Oh, my child’
Listen to the whole album here: Josh Garrels’ Home
Image: Josh Garrels, Home (www.JoshGarrels.com)