At Christmas time the return of an adult child can be stressful as well as joyful

People who travel back into their own past may come among us as strangers

True and indeed divine hospitality is about welcoming adult children as they are. Photograph: iStock

True and indeed divine hospitality is about welcoming adult children as they are. Photograph: iStock


Last year I penned a seasonal message for my diocese and beyond, entitled The Empty Chair. It seems to have struck a chord with many people; particularly on YouTube.

I was reflecting on how in our house there would be an absentee from the family table, for the first time since our children were born. One member of our family was living and working, following her graduation, far away in Chile.

It seemed rather poignantly like the end of an era.

This year our daughter will be coming home again, so there will be no empty chairs. But when our adult offspring return even briefly to the nest, especially after extended periods of travelling and working abroad, we have to accept that they may be somewhat different people.

They may have been changed by experiences the rest of us did not share, and they may have entered into relationships about which we scarcely know.

Sometimes the return of an adult child can be somewhat stressful as well as joyful, for all parties involved. Many families know this because the scarcity and cost of housing, particularly in our cities, brings young adults back to live in the parental home at an age when in previous generations they would almost certainly have left.

It can be a test of our hospitality and our empathy when our adult children return to those empty chairs, sometime bringing with them strange ideas that challenge our comfortable assumptions. We have to accept and even rejoice that their travels and their encounters have changed them, that they may no longer share all our values and are certainly not our clones.

And we have to acknowledge that the return of the wanderers can, for them, involve a certain measure of trepidation and courage as they wonder what we are going to make of them.

Confused choreography

There are many stories in Scripture about the awkwardness as well as the joy of going back home; the confused choreography of it all. Most obviously there is the parable describing the return of the so-called prodigal son (a designation I have never found particularly helpful), which has provided inspiration for many a great artist – including, of course, Rembrandt.

At this particular time of the year, however, I always find myself thinking imaginatively about what it might have been like for the wise men to go back to where they came from. Scripture only tells us that they had to choose a roundabout route to avoid the wrath of King Herod. beyond that we can only speculate.

Certainly they faced a long and tiring journey, back to a cultural context which, although once familiar,would have no shared sense of the transforming encounter that they had experienced. They must have felt considerable trepidation about how they would face their families, not least with their inherited religious assumptions now turned upside down.

TS Eliot, in Journey of the Magi, expresses perfectly the genuine fear and apprehension of the returning wise men. They came to feel no longer at ease in the old dispensation with an alien people clutching their gods.

Although the language is that of poetry, the feelings of the wise men may not be hugely different to those of today’s returning travellers who come back to old haunts often greatly changed, apprehensive as well as joyful.

Not unaltered

It is wonderful when that empty chair is no longer empty. But it is vital to welcome back the traveller as she now is, not to pretend that she is unaltered or still comfortably made in the parental image.

True and indeed divine hospitality is about welcoming people as they are, indeed rushing to greet them with outstretched arms as they approach . . . just like the father in Jesus’s Parable of the Two Sons, as it is surely better to call that story.

The really profound truth is surely this: those who travel back into their own past to take again their old places at Christmas tables may actually come among us, like the risen Christ himself at the meal at Emmaus, as apparent strangers who are simultaneously our best beloved.

Right Rev Michael Burrows is Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel, Ferns & Ossory

To watch the ‘Welcome Home’ Christmas message, see