Our advent calendar calls us to shift our focus this week to joy. But nothing seems more incompatible with the news from Newtown than joy. Joy seems far more compatible with babies in mangers than babies in caskets.
When I was a boy and skinned my knee, I ran to my mother’s lap. When my heart is wounded now that I am grown, I still seek comfort there.
My mom knew the searing pain of burying a child; my brother Bradley died when he was 3. My mom also understood, better than anyone I know, that joy runs far deeper than emotion. Her words speak for themselves as she tells the story of Christmas with a dying boy.
The hours passed slowly as we rocked, read, sang to, and waited with Bradley. We talked and planned for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Bradley was overcoming the violent reactions within his body to the treatment, and in the first part of December he was transferred out of the ICU onto the Pediatric Surgical Ward. Progress was excruciatingly slow as each day brought us closer to Christmas but no nearer to health. More than anything, I wanted him home for that special day.
While Bradley was strong enough to sit up, his little eyes would not open on their own. He adapted by learning to hold the lids up with one finger just so he could see what was going on. Even so, he seemed to be gradually gaining strength every day. Until, with just a week to go before Christmas, he caught the flu and all his progress was lost. My soaring hopes for Christmas as a family came crashing down. I remember being so jealous of the families I saw on the street and the festivities in their homes.
“How could the world go on all around me while mine fell apart?”
My world continued to disintegrate; Bradley’s condition grew still worse. Two days before Christmas the doctors admitted they feared that Bradley was fighting a septic infection instead of the flu or pneumonia. Not only were my hopes for his coming home for Christmas crushed, I was now afraid maybe he would never come home at all–ever.
It was with a heavy heart that I woke that Christmas Eve, the cold, dread fear for my tiny son’s life gripping my heart as soon as my eyes opened. I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew that I trusted God, and yet…
This might be the hardest day of my life.
And yet, the light of the morning revealed that in the darkness of the night, God had given us a Christmas gift that rivaled the generosity of his first Christmas. Bradley had improved, and the doctors ruled out infection and pneumonia. We would be able to take him home!
Bradley would be home for Christmas!
I stopped at a store on the way home and wanted to tell everyone, “Jesus isn’t the only Christmas gift God has given me this Christmas. He has given me my own son–I am finally bringing him home from the hospital!!!” I could only barely restrain myself in my joyful euphoria!
Bright and early that very special Christmas morning we got up, dressed, and started off for the hospital to get our precious Christmas present. We bundled Bradley up, collected our things, said good bye to the doctors,
And finally took our little boy home.
Bradley was very weak. He could not walk and still could not hold his head up well. But he was home! It was a quiet, very special Christmas we celebrated that day. Never had the precious gift of Life that was sent so long ago meant so much. Never had the reality of Christmas been so vivid.
It was a very, very good day. Maybe the happiest day of my life.
Bradley enjoyed that Christmas, and then one Christmas more. But the day came when my mom faced her first Christmas barren of Bradley, faced the reality that Bradley would never come home for Christmas again. And on that day, she understood the comforting depth in Paul’s words, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
My mom often spoke openly about the valley of the shadow of death. She says it took her over two years to find her way out of the valley after Bradley’s death, and even then she had mountains of grief ahead of her. She spoke of her rage at God and her numbness. And through it all, she spoke of faith in what is good.
Walking by sight is when all is going well. It is when we feel God’s presence and do not question that He is in control and has planned our lives very well. Walking by faith is when all is dark. We cannot see the path down which we are stumbling, we cannot feel God’s presence, we are tempted to think He is no longer in control or has not planned our lives well. Yet, in all the confusion, in all the fear, is the underlying knowledge that says, “God is good.”
The Baby in the manger carried, and carries, the power to end the days of babies in caskets. And so even as our hearts are shattered we find shards of joy in the moment and we cling to a joy that plumbs the depths of who God is. He came. He will come again. In the midst of tragedy, the words still ring with truth and power: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice!