A Christmas Meditation
The older I get, the more real death becomes. Almost daily, it seems, I hear about the death of someone who is uncomfortably close to me in age: a former schoolmate; a favorite singer or actor from my youth; a coworker, family member, or friend. My husband — who, like me, is the baby of his family — has lost one sibling, and I have lost two. In the last 15 years we have buried three of our parents (the fourth, my father, died 30 years ago). When your parents are all gone and even your older siblings have started to leave this earth, you suddenly realize that you are next in line.
But I’m not sure whether any of these things impressed upon me the reality of my own mortality as much as the birth of my first grandchild last month. It’s counter-intuitive. Why would the miracle of new life, with all the potential it represents, turn one’s thoughts to death? As I gaze upon my grandson’s soft, unblemished cheeks; inhale his sweet “new baby smell”; and feel the grasp of his tiny hand around my index finger, I can’t help pondering the chasm of time and experience that exists between him and me. At barely two months old, he has his entire life ahead of him. He has no concept of death and won’t for some time. Yes, he is a sinful creature in need of a Savior, but he is blessedly unaware of the evil and ugliness lurking in the world just beyond his front door. All he knows right now is caring parents, warmth, food, and love (and maybe a little colic).
The World in Sin and Error
It’s true what my friends who were already grandparents told me: having a grandchild is an unparalleled joy. Yet as I cradle him in my arms, marveling at what God has done, I also grieve for the pain that I know awaits him. None of us escape it this side of heaven. My grandson will know sin, death and the devil. He will know sickness, cruelty, disappointment, failure, injury, rejection, and calamity. He may, right now, be the picture of life and vitality, but he has already started his own inexorable journey toward death. Every minute, hour, and day that passes takes him closer to it. How I wish I could protect him from death’s sting, from watching his grandparents and parents die and someday facing it himself.
This is not how it was supposed to be. We recoil at death because it was never in God’s plan that his creation should die. We know this in our inmost being, and we resist and fight death’s claim upon us until we can fight no more. But there is One who came to earth for the express purpose of dying. While we his created people fight death every inch of the way, Jesus, the Son of God, submitted to it willingly. Unlike us, he had the power to resist death’s claim on him, yet he didn’t. He was born into the flesh so that he could die and, in so doing, vanquish death itself. He took death with him to the grave, and he left it there, defeated, conquered, and ripped of its power. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:23). Christ died and rose so that we who find our life in him might do the same.
For the last few years around Christmastime I’ve seen a social media post featuring a photo of The Pietà, Michelangelo’s statue of Mary holding a crucified Jesus, with the opening line of the famous hymn by William C. Dix (1837–1898) superimposed on the image:
What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
The juxtaposition of a hymn about the nativity of Jesus with an image of Mary holding her dead son is a powerful depiction of the chilling nature of that nativity: it was always about dying, from the very beginning. As another stanza of the hymn reminds us:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
The Thrill of Hope
I remember, as a child, lying in bed at night and trying to imagine what my life would be like when I was “grown up.” My childhood was not the picture-book variety. There was alcoholism, domestic violence, dysfunction, and for a long time, an absence of church. I longed for the day when I would have more power to shape my own life’s direction. I dreamed of marriage, children, peace, and harmony. But it all seemed so far away. My own death, in particular, was hard to imagine.
It’s no longer so hard to imagine. The life I dreamed about all those years ago is no longer a distant fantasy. Now a lot of it is behind me, and the end of the road draws ever closer. And the blessings have so abounded — far beyond anything I ever imagined — that these days I dread death not so much because I’m afraid of dying but because, even with all its difficulty, I don’t want to leave this life behind. There’s too much to love about it. Moreover, in my hubris I think that if I can just stay here on earth a little longer maybe I can protect my dear ones from some of the suffering that I know awaits them.
I can’t protect them any more than Mary could protect Jesus. Death came for Jesus, and it comes for us all. Thanks be to God that, the next time I see my grandson, I can pull him into my arms, snuggle him close, and have the comfort of knowing that he already wears the name of Jesus, given him in baptism barely a week after he was born.
Yes, unless Christ comes back first, this little one who is right now the very picture of health and strength will some day follow his grandparents and parents to the grave. If he is blessed with long life, he will some day be an old man, and if God further blesses him with his own children and grandchildren, they will one day mourn his passing. But because of the baby who came to earth more than 2,000 years ago to die the death that was ours, the creation that was never supposed to know death will one day be recreated, and all who are in Jesus raised to live with Him forever.
Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!
** Header image: Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica, 1498–1499Cheryl Magness
is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/nails-spear-shall-pierce-him-through