I wrote the first version of this poem three years ago. This morning, however, I revised it to half its former length. I seem to be writing in fewer and fewer words, recently. My Christmas poem this year lasted for all of three lines. This revised poem has six.
More importantly, I have changed the point of view in the poem–instead of being the excuse given by Peter, James, and John, it is now written as though Jesus of Nazareth were remembering that night.
Later Thursday Night
They, being asleep, could not know
how I suffered, kneeling in the garden
not far from where they slept, a stone’s throw.
Could you not wait one hour with me?
This is still the question, isn’t it?
in many a Gethsemane.
There are only a few of us in attendance; one folding table is enough. Those who have brought their Bibles turn to the passage for the day, in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, the last of three stories the Teacher told. It is pleasant company, and I leaf through my open book while enjoying my coffee.
Ah yes, the prodigal son: it is hard to imagine anyone not liking the story of the father standing on the front porch (there is not really a porch) looking far down the road every single day hoping and praying for the safe return of his wayward son. As my pastor-husband says, this really is a story about what God is like.
But then someone else thinks aloud how difficult it would be for the younger son, when penniless and starving, to admit that he has wasted everything and then to drag his sorry self home once more. He expects to be treated as a servant in his father’s household where all this time his elder brother has lived out his days as though exactly that, a hired servant. “I have worked like a slave for you!” this firstborn will say to the father. The story stays in my mind even after the Bible study is over.
This Bible story has no women in it except for the prostitutes mentioned in the elder brother’s accusations. To think of a prodigal daughter, I have to recall a scene from the movie “The Color Purple,” a scene I have loved as a picture of the kingdom of God. It is early Sunday morning and the people gathered in church begin to hear singing from across the swamp and getting closer. A veritable multitude of prodigals who had likely spent their Saturday night in dissolute living now take leave of the bootlegger’s shanty, the juke joint, and rise up to form a procession. Their voices are thus added to those of the choir. Last of all, who should come in, and not dragging her sorry self but dancing, with her head held high? It’s Shug, the sultry singer. The stern old preacher-man in church, as it happens, is her father. He waits as Shug enters the sanctuary—and we hold our breath—almost too late but not too late he leaves the pulpit and in the middle of the center aisle opens wide his arms to embrace his daughter. It has been a long time since I saw “The Color Purple, “ so I may have some details wrong, but it is the Teacher’s story that makes me think of it again.
Only, whose idea of God do I prefer? In the movie, the years of estrangement between father and daughter likely resulted from cruel things said. In Luke’s gospel, by contrast, the reckless foolish too-generous father gives the son half his property long before what would have been the customary time, after his last breath. Then, when the son returns, the father cannot even wait for the apology to get said before he calls for a ring and robe and feast. “We had to celebrate,” he says, unable to contain his joy.
Easter seems to be a good time for all of us prodigals to make our way home, although when and whether and how we do so is entirely up to us. Quite amazing, isn’t it?