It was shortly before my twenty-first birthday. I was away from home, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Lost, and stuck in aloneness.
I had left my church community after high school, feeding my insatiable curiosity on a steady diet of scientific journals that I devoured in the college library. Through them I gained fascinating insights into the world, but I also became worldly wise, daily imbibing the Zeitgeist and allowing an invisible shell to form around my heart. Unwittingly, I was building my own prison, brick by brick.
Although I failed to acknowledge it at the time, an inner voice was telling me that the accumulation of knowledge will never satisfy the soul’s thirst to know its place. Knowledge alone could not guide me to safe haven.
An increasing restlessness drove me to other areas of the library, and for the first time in my life I read the entire book of Isaiah in one sitting. Something stirred within me, and I can still feel the eagerness that urged me on, page by page. But in my conflicted state, even the prophet failed to adequately address the single question that grew ever larger and loomed over all others: How can a loving God preside over the death of even one innocent child?
Years later, I was staying in the home of family friends on a work assignment. My head was aware that this family had lost a three-year-old son to an inoperable brain tumor eighteen months prior. But at that time I was too immersed in my own self-centered interests and my self-made prison to take any real notice. If anything, I registered this death as another example of the impossibility of God.
Mothers are special. And a true mother envelopes, with love and attention, every waif and stray who comes under her roof. Like a skilled healer, she instinctively senses, and reaches into, the aloneness and lost-ness in need of nurturing. So it was that this mother found a fledgling in her nest who just did not seem to be able to fly, or even to know if he was made to fly at all.
This mother’s response was to give me her diary, in which she’d written of the birth of a child long prayed for and eagerly awaited. She recorded his growth into a sunny, fun-loving toddler, beloved by family and neighbors alike. He had a special wagon that he loved to pull around, and there were photos in which his smile engulfed his face. Actually, his whole body smiled. That’s just how he was.
Then something went terribly wrong. He grew listless and was not himself. Tests eventually revealed the worst: a cancerous tumor in the brain. There was nothing to be done except to make him as comfortable as possible until the clock stopped ticking.
When I got to this stage in the diary, I knew this was to be my test case: These were truly believing Christians, a loving family for whom this child was an undoubted gift from God. And now this gift was to be taken from them by this same God? How utterly despicable. Capricious. Unthinkable. The child was dying, cruelly. A mere toss of the dice and it was all over.
By this time it was past midnight, but I felt I could not exist another day without finding out just how this agonizing real-life drama played out. When I put the diary down, I knew.
I knew that Mary took a risk, a monumental risk, to become the mother of Jesus. Not only the immediate risk of scandal and shame; she knew that to become the mother of the Son of God was to embrace every mother’s worst nightmare – to have her heart pierced by the violent death of the child she had born. Jesus’ death.
Why that death? Because of self-absorbed, self-imprisoned, culture-addicted people like me, whose only chance at salvation would necessitate this dreaded and dreadful end. This ultimate sacrifice was my doing.
Is there greater love than this?
No, the diary did not solve my philosophical questions about undeserved suffering. Rather, it led me inexorably through the excruciating pain of a single innocent death and opened my heart and mind to the mystery of an Innocent Death that changed everything into all eternity. There are questions that will never be answered this side of heaven, but in those early hours of a new day, I was certain beyond all doubt that one day I would know, even as I am fully known by Him, as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12. And that was enough. I had been guided to safe haven.
I knew that God, whose love encompasses all suffering, became Man in the form of a helpless child totally dependent on the selfless love of his mother, and I knew that this Son of Man had died an innocent and horrible death on a cruel, lonely cross. Love was there. God was there, every step of the way to Calvary and beyond.
But that was not all. I knew that this God walks with us through every valley of the shadow of death; that he is present even as a mother’s heart is torn asunder, shredded to bits with an anguished and unanswerable, “Why?” And his patient, suffering love is present through every painful hour of watching and waiting for an outcome that will never be. Just as there was no hour in which God was not there, present with this family and with their beloved son.
Love was there. God was there, every step of the way to Calvary and beyond.
No one is ever truly alone in sorrow and pain because the Son, the author of all creation, was himself torn by aloneness in his most desperate hour.
Feeling forsaken, he did not deny his God and Father; nor did he rail against the Love that had planned his every agonized breath. And he won the battle. Not for one instant had his Father’s love been withdrawn; in fact it surrounded him most securely just when he felt the most forsaken. Death and Hell lost the battle – not just that once, but forever. Jesus rose from the grave.
A Father’s love. A mother’s love. These two came together to form a completely unique historical reality in the birth of Jesus. Innocence born in a dirty cattle shed; Innocence suffering a violent, cruel, and lonely death; Innocence conquering death, forever. Re-birth means nothing less than embracing this mystery and owning this miracle. As Martin Luther writes,
Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would daily be sung into my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own?
“Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me” [Rev. 3:20, NET]. The greatest of all Christmas gifts is always and everywhere available to every soul. The choice is ours to open the door. Or not.