Last Sunday at thousands of churches across America, little children lisped, sang and maybe occasionally shouted their way through a myriad retellings and reinterpretations of the Christmas story. In our church’s rendition, my youngest nearly stole the whole show as the Shooting Star. Clad in a giant, gold lame star costume, my 8 year old sang, ran around the stage (and entire auditorium – barefoot) and generally threw herself into her role with all the enthusiasm an extroverted, redheaded third grader could muster (which is to say, a lot). My heart was full as we went home and I watched her make one last cookie and adrenaline-fueled run down the hall to her bedroom. Naturally, I sat down at my laptop to share my maternal pride on social media. But as I uploaded the pictures of my daughter’s smiling, gold starred self, headlines and pictures nearby brought a flood of tears to my eyes, tears that continue to flow even today. While my mother’s heart was bursting with maternal joy and pride that night, others were, and still are, breaking with bitter sorrow and unimaginable anguish.
The date of my daughter’s Christmas pageant was the second anniversary of the Newtown massacre. 20 precious children the same age as my daughter lost their lives in their school classroom via the guns of a disturbed teenaged boy; their mothers lost a lifetime of future Christmas pageant memories. As I read the news of their anniversary remembrances and prayed for them, my Twitter feed began to fill with news of an ISIS sympathizer taking hostages inside a café in downtown Sydney. For 16 terrifying hours he kept customers and workers captive with guns and threats of bombs, eventually killing the manager and a customer (a mother of three young children), before being killed by police. Then, just this morning, I awoke to news that Pakistani Taliban invaded a school in Peshawar and slaughtered over 130 children aged between 10 and 16. Meanwhile, residents of one of the wealthiest counties in America were hiding in their homes and schools were on lockdown as police hunt for an armed man who shot and killed his ex-wife and her extended family, including his 14 year old niece, in cold blood.
In urban metropolises and third world cities, wealthy enclaves and impoverished communities, anguish and unspeakable grief is replacing tidings of comfort and joy. What is the world coming to, where mothers and children are being slaughtered in such a hellish manner? What kind of times are these?
They are the same kind of times as the mothers of Jesus’ earliest days.
When King Herod realized that the wise men, gone to worship a long prophesied and newly born king, would not be returning reveal the baby’s location, he poured out his jealous rage on the young infant and toddler boys of an entire city. All across Bethlehem and the surrounding region, the cries of young baby boys were silenced, replaced with the piercing lamentations of their mothers. No doubt Mary, hidden away in Egypt, shed many tears of her own as she held her young son tightly and remembered the words of joy and blessing she had sung over the baby in her womb not so long before. How could what was happening now be part of what she sang then?
With fewer ways to mark the days than we have now, the memory of the massacre at Bethlehem likely faded for many, but never for the mothers who had an entire generation of sons and heirs wrenched from their arms and hearts one dark night. Nor would it fade from the memory of Mary, the mother of the one son who survived, the son whose very existence was the reason those others sons all perished. Thirty years later, how much heavier was the burden of her grief when she, too, watched her son die at the hands of a capricious ruler and an angry mob with murder in their hearts. How could she bear such grief? How can we?
Our grief is containable when we remember the Man whose life is defined, not only by the grief He experienced Himself, but how He carried our grief for us. The grief of the mothers of Bethlehem and Newtown, of Pennsburg and Peshawar, is the very grief Jesus bore on the cross. On the cross, the righteous ruler of the universe poured out His holy anger onto His own Son, who willingly took the weight of the sin and the sorrow of the world, so that it could be taken from us. This very day, He is alive and seated at the very right hand of God, hearing our cries of sorrow and interceding for us, reminding us that no tribulation or distress or danger or sword or gun can ultimately separate us from His love. We remember that because He is alive, there is coming a day when He will stand and return to us, and He will make all aright as only He can. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things (will) have passed away.
In this season of Advent, as in the first, we weep as the mothers of Bethlehem wept, we pray as they prayed, we say “Come quickly, Lord Jesus”, and we wait with hope.
By Rachael Starke