The Homecoming: Advent and the Ache of the Season

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Editor's Note

This article is part of a series called Art Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and art during December.

Many people like their Christmas movies excessively cheery. They want saccharine feel-good stories wrapped in garland, lights, and plenty of Christmas cheer.

Now, I’m no Scrooge. But those movies always felt a little hollow to me. Because as joyful as Christmas is, there’s also an underlying ache to the season that these movies simply don’t convey. Holiday gatherings and festive cheer can make broken relationships, unmet expectations, grief, or even loneliness that much more painful.

As a result, I’m particularly grateful for Advent. Advent is not a synonym for Christmas, per se. Advent points us back to the yearning that led to the Messiah’s first coming — as we experience our own longing for his second coming. With Advent, we don’t run from ache; we embrace it. We acknowledge the world’s brokenness, and we yearn for One to come who will make things right.

So you see my dilemma. Most Christmas movies are too busy trying to package holly jolly feels to faithfully depict the longings of the Advent season.

Yet one movie captures the spirit of Advent remarkably well, though you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s called The Homecoming, a 1971 made-for-TV Christmas special adapted from the Earl Hamner novel of the same name.

Most people know this movie as the genesis of The Waltons television show, but the movie is so much more. It’s one of the best depictions of the longing of Advent.

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story

Longing for More

In most Christmas movies, snow is mere decoration, designed to enhance that nostalgic longing for a white Christmas. Not so in The Homecoming. The snow that blankets the grounds of central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is a harsh reminder of the cold death of winter, as the Walton family rations its reserves until spring arrives.

Equally chilly is the community’s financial prospects. With the Great Depression in full force, the Waltons are facing a lean Christmas, in which the most indulgent expense is sugar for Olivia Walton’s famous applesauce cake. “Santa Claus is poor this year, just like everybody else,” she tells a young neighbor. The characters (and the viewers) understand that things just aren’t how they’re supposed to be.

Everyone responds to the depression differently. Rev. Hawthorne Dooley picks up a side job working for aging sister bootleggers. “I can’t see a man starving himself to death, Mrs. Walton,” he rationalizes to Olivia. The Walton’s friend Charlie Snead steals turkeys from a local warehouse and delivers them to hungry people in his community, at least until his illegal philanthropy gets him arrested. And a misguided women’s missionary union distributes broken toys to all the “heathen” children of the mountains who can quote a Bible verse. After all, she claims, why should they send the gifts to “unappreciative savages” when these children’s need are ”just as great”?

Each of these people responds to this financial longing in unhealthy ways, as we all are prone to do. When faced with need, frustration, and pain, sometimes we do good things in wrong ways — or bad things for good reasons.

But the character who most embodies this yearning is young John Boy Walton. John Boy experiences the challenges of being responsible for his younger siblings, doing family chores, and normal teenage growing pains. But he also faces pressure to live up to his father John Walton’s larger-than-life personality. John Boy longs to become a writer, not to take up the manual trades of his forefathers. John Boy’s internal tension embodies that of the film. How do we respond to unmet yearnings? What do we do when we ache for more?

This yearning is central to the Advent season. I’m sure that God’s people felt this tension, as they patiently waited under the cold grip of the Roman Empire for their Messiah to arrive. We also feel this tension, as we ache for the Messiah’s return to restore order, correct the wrongs, and bring life back to our cold, dead world.

John Boy longed for something more, and at Advent so do we.

We yearn for the One who will bring life to the dead of winter.

Longing for the Return

Beyond the depression-era angst, a more personal concern looms for the Waltons: When will Daddy be home? John Walton had been away for work, and he was scheduled to be home by Christmas Eve. But as day turns to night on Christmas Eve, John Walton is nowhere to be found. Grandpa and Grandma hear on the radio news that a bus headed their direction had overturned. The fear is palpable: When will John make it home, or will he be at home at all?

Olivia Walton feels this longing most acutely. She wants to be strong for her family, but her worried face reveals lingering doubts. What if he doesn’t return? What if he’s gone?

So Olivia sends John Boy on a mission to find his daddy. John Boy wastes no time. He borrows recently arrested Charlie Snead’s truck (stolen turkeys and all), runs out of gas in the middle of a dark snowy road, meets up with Rev. Hawthorne after a lively church Christmas pageant, stops by the old bootleggers’ house, and ultimately goes on a festive sleigh ride on the hunt for his daddy. But as midnight approaches, they come up empty-handed. John Boy returns home without his father.

Fiercely disappointed, Olivia wonders if she’ll ever see her husband again. More than anything, she longs for her husband to be home.

Again, this longing is central to Advent. I wonder if so many of God’s people felt the same way just prior to Jesus’ first coming. Did they doubt God would keep his promises? Did they really believe a Messiah would come? Surely, many of us are tempted to similar hopelessness. As our world deteriorates around us, as sin is celebrated, as wars increase, and as financial despair rises, we too can begin to doubt.

Olivia yearns for her husband’s return, just as we yearn for our Bridegroom’s return.

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story

The Homecoming

Then, at the least expected moment, the Waltons hear a rumble outside. The children rush downstairs and open the door. The viewers don’t see what they see; we only see their faces react to what’s before them. Fear melts away. Beaming smiles grow across their faces.

Daddy is home.

John Walton lumbers in, a wide grin on his face as his children climb all over him. He drops a giant sack of presents on the floor, which he claims he wrestled from Santa Clause in the yard.

As Olivia weeps with relief, he hands his bride a bouquet of flowers. “Flowers? In the dead of winter?” she asks in hushed awe. John Boy opens his present, a stack of writing tablets. More significant than the gift is the intent behind it. Though he may not understand the vocation of writer, John Walton supports his son’s calling.

With wrapping paper strewn about the floor, yawning children joyfully gazing at their presents, and John Walton’s arm around his wife, all is right with the world. “Good night, John Boy!” they say, as the family is finally able to rest in peace.

This scene is a beautiful reminder about our longings at Advent. At the most unexpected time, the one they’d waited for finally came. And the same is true with Jesus. When God’s people had lost all hope, Jesus did come. The weary world did rejoice. ‘Hark, the herald,’ angels did sing. In a dark, bleak moment of human history, Jesus arrived — bringing joy and hope to his family, and, yes, to the entire world.

And we can be confident that Jesus will come again. As we live through our own bleak winters, filled with deep yearnings and unmet expectations, we rightfully long for One to come and make it right. We yearn for the One who will bring life to the dead of winter — and who will answer the deepest longings of our heart.

We don’t know when. But just as John Walton burst through that door, our King is coming. Our fears and frustrations will melt. Our joy will increase. And we’ll have something better than hollow Christmas cheer — we’ll have the Homecoming of the one our hearts have longed for all along.

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Editor's Note

All images are screen captures from the 1971 movie, "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story."

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Nathaniel D. Williams

Editor and Content Manager

Nathaniel D. Williams (M.Div, Southeastern Seminary) oversees the website, podcast and social media for the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and he serves as the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church. His work has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Fathom Mag, the ERLC and He and his family live in rural North Carolina.

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