Another Prodigal Son {Book Club}

Before jumping in this week, I want to point out that the Book Club also read this story 6 years ago. On that page, Amy shared some research about the author that is pretty interesting!

About a year ago, I started reading Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The author is an Episcopal priest, and this book is a collection of her sermons and writings about Advent. The book came to mind several times as I was reading “The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather (writing as Elizabeth L Seymour) this week, so I’m going to draw in a few quotes as we go along.

The story is about William, whose birthday is Christmas Eve. It takes place in Chicago on his 24th birthday. He was far from home, and as far as he knew, his family still lived “down East.” He was homeless and completely broke. He hadn’t eaten in more than a day, but he refused the invitation for some free food with his buddy. He wanted to be alone as he thought about his birthday, his failures in life, and his empty stomach. “It is a tragic hour, that hour when we are finally driven to reckon with ourselves, when every avenue of mental distraction has been cut off and our own life and all its ineffaceable failures closes about us like the walls of that old torture chamber of the Inquisition.”

William was in a dark place at the beginning of the story. He was the prodigal son, starving and wallowing with pigs, remembering that his father’s servants were at least well fed. But, unlike the prodigal son, who decided to go home and beg for mercy, William was still looking for one last thrill: “He had failed at everything else, now he would see what his chances would be as a common thief.”

A lot of Christmas stories start in a dark place, and after reading Rev. Rutledge’s book, I think these stories are actually Advent stories. She wrote, “Advent is about a world in darkness.” And, “In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good, hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.”

Lest he lose his nerve, William quickly set about robbing the nearest house, which was big enough to have some good loot. As he picked through the valuables, he began to recognize things… It was his parents’ house!

His mother responded just like the prodigal son’s father—welcoming and forgiving. She completely restored her son to his rightful place. His rightful place was not based on his own merit or what he had earned. If it were, his failures and resorting to burglary would have earned him a very bad place. No, his rightful place was based on who he was: her son!

He tried to deny her affection and welcome, tried to explain as much of himself as he could, though he wasn’t ready to tell her all yet. He asked, “I wonder if you know how much you pardon?” She answered, “O, my poor boy, much or little, what does it matter?”

Rev. Rutledge wrote (in Advent), “Even the tiniest sign of reconciliation, the smallest hint of forgiveness, the most minuscule glimmer of kindness is a sign that God is with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

The physical darkness of the winter season in the northern hemisphere is often used as an analogy to the spiritual darkness that Advent brings to our attention. The hours of daylight get shorter and shorter as December progresses. Plants and animals slow down their life rhythms, hibernating. Everything is dark and lifeless until spring arrives.

I live 3 degrees south of the equator in coastal Kenya. Not only do we not have winter weather, but the length of daylight hours also hardly varies from one solstice to the other. Dry season is the time when the natural world appears to wait for reconciliation. In March, the grass will appear to be completely dead. But it’s not! It’s waiting. As soon as the first rain shower comes in April, the grass will suddenly green up! If the Church calendar were made by people who live in the climate and latitude I do, I think that Advent would fall during the dry season. What about where you live? When is the season of dormancy, waiting, or darkness?

Here’s our schedule for the rest of the month:

December 21st: Favorite Books of 2021

December 28th: Uncle Richard’s New Year Dinner

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash


  1. Sarah Hilkemann December 14, 2021

    Willa Cather spent a good portion of her childhood in Nebraska and attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln- just a little shoutout to my home state. 😉

    It is interesting to think of the seasons of waiting outside of the northern hemisphere. The consistency of the time the sun set in Cambodia was fascinating to me. It varied through the year by maybe 10-15 minutes. I agree with you about dry season, especially in Cambodia when it was hot/dry season. Those months were excruciating (for me the foreigner at least!), and the relief when the first rains came was so sweet.

    I usually think waiting as a time of barrenness. God might be working in ways I can’t see, but outwardly waiting feels like a tree in winter with no leaves, no buds, or the dry, cracked ground before rainy season. I love the quote you shared that even the tiniest hint of hope is a reminder that God is with us.

    1. Rachel Kahindi December 18, 2021

      I like the image of a tree without leaves – not dead, just waiting, ready to burst into buds when the time is right.

  2. Bayta Schwarz December 14, 2021

    Now I know why the story seemed vaguely familiar 🙂 Where I am (Northern Europe), I always feel the darkness and the longing for even little signs of hope most in January and February. With all the Christmas decorations, December has so many extra lights. But when they suddenly all disappear – that is brutal. Spring is still a long way off and those two months tend to feel very long and dark. Come March, there are usually a few days at least that feel like spring and the days are starting to get noticeably longer.

  3. Rachel Kahindi December 18, 2021

    I often wonder what it would be like to live where the days are much shorter in winter. Here in my home state, our shortest day of the year still has almost 10 hours of sunlight.

    This month, I’m reading an advent devo called All Creation Waits that describes how 24 animals (one each day) survive the cold dark months. The different ways species adapt to keep warm and not starve is so cool.

    1. Bayta Schwarz December 18, 2021

      Right now for us, sunrise is about 8:30 am and sunset 3:30 pm…

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