In Fort Wayne today, a father and mother have mourned the death of their infant daughter, Vivian Anastasia Gregory. She departed from this vale of tears to the heavenly Jerusalem at 7:00 p.m. last night, the 17th of July. That was the news with which I went to sleep, having seen the announcement on Pastor Petersen's blog just before putting myself to bed yesterday. It was on my heart and on my mind when I awoke first thing this morning, and although I have been at a loss for words all day, I could not rest another night without saying something in response. I have been numbed, almost frozen, by the contemplation of this loss and of those grieving parents, and I have nothing with which to counter that except the Word of God in Christ.
I did not know Vivian, though I have seen her picture more than once. She was born prematurely in January of this year, and was afflicted with various infirmities and weaknesses from the beginning. I had met her parents, Peter and Kristen, not long before she was born, when they visited Emmaus during Christmastide. They attend Redeemer in Fort Wayne, where my daughter and son-in-law are also well served each week by the Gospel. So, from a distance, I have had a special place in my heart and mind, in my thoughts and prayers, for this baby girl: premature in her birth, and now, from our finite perspective, premature in her death. We have prayed for her at Emmaus in these past many months, and, as the chaplain at the Higher Things conference in St. Louis, it was my privilege to pray for her two weeks ago, as she was having a critical surgery at that time. Each day that has passed since then, I have given thanks for the life that God has granted Vivian, and I have prayed that He would continue to guard and keep her in safety and in health.
Vivian was born about the same time that my eldest son, Zachary, fell and hit his head. It was just a few weeks later, then, that we lost our unborn son, Job, by miscarriage. No doubt those two events contributed to my paternal empathy for Vivian's parents. I trembled in fear for them, not as though abandoning the faith and hope of the Gospel, but at the prospect of the grief that would grip them at the loss of their little girl. God has made the bond between parents and their children incredibly strong and precious. Even faithful Christians do not lightly suffer the breaking of that bond. Though they do not mourn like those who have no hope, they do mourn exquisitely. I did not want Peter and Kristen to suffer that painful loss, because, already in my empathy for them, I could almost taste it, and at that my whole body, soul and spirit shuddered.
I still remember, from years ago, a sermon preached at Emmaus by my friend and colleague, the Reverend Scott Stiegemeyer (now also a member at Redeemer in Fort Wayne). It was on the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It was on that occasion that Jesus wept, thereby sanctifying the tears of His saints, as He has also sanctified our graves by His own rest in the tomb. More than once in that same story, He was deeply moved within Himself. He shuddered at the curse and consequence of sin, which He Himself would bear in His own body on the Cross, unto death. Pastor Stiegemeyer preached, then, that as much as we hate death, the Lord our God hates it even more. It was neither His idea nor His intention. It is an intrusion upon His good creation, a contradiction of His Life. It is the last great enemy, already defeated by the death of Christ, but not yet laid to rest. It still rages and storms against us, and we still shudder. But the Lord has shuddered with us and for us, and He has brought an end to the power and sting of death.
The truth of this Gospel seems impossible to us, especially when we are given to bury a child. Where, O death, is thy victory? It would seem to be right here in front of us. All the words and promises of God appear to be an empty mockery, an impotent lie, a cruel and tasteless joke. The world's attempt at sympathy, its awkward pat on the shoulder, is no comfort but another nail in the coffin. The devil's taunting and his dreadful accusations would bury us, also, in grief and shame, in doubts and fears, in cold anger or bitter despair. Where is that Jesus of Nazareth who raised Lazarus of Bethany and the widow's son at Nain and the young daughter of Jairus? Words, words, words. None of them put the baby back in the arms of her mother and father.
I cannot presume to know how Vivian's parents are feeling, or what they are thinking, or how they will cope without their little girl in these coming weeks. I am going to keep praying for them, and I thank God for the good and faithful pastor He has given them in Fort Wayne. But if my own emotions are of any help to me in empathizing with my neighbor, then I am also going to hurt with Peter and Kristen. Perhaps that is not such a pointless or empty thing. We ought to mourn the death of a child. There is no other cross that echoes more closely the sacrifice of God's own Son, and it is by that Cross that He makes all things new. By this hurt we are catechized after God's own heart, who did not spare His beloved Son but delivered Him up for us all. Why? That He might become the Firstborn of many brethren; that we might become the children of God in Him.
As it so happened, Vivian departed from this life on earth to her Father in heaven on the commemoration of the Council of Ephesus (which adjourned on the 17th of July, A.D. 431). There and then the Church confessed that, because the Lord Jesus Christ is true God, His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is rightly called and truly is "Theotokos," the God-bearer, the Mother of God. That is chiefly to say what is true concerning Christ, our Savior, but it is also to say something about His Mother, which in turn means something for every mother. She conceived the Son of God in her womb by the Holy Spirit, and thereby God became true Man. She carried Him for nine months in her body, and then gave birth to Him in the flesh, that He might carry the sins of the world in His body, and deliver us all from death and the grave by His sacrifice upon the Cross, and give birth to the children of God in His Resurrection from the dead, by the new birth of water and the Holy Spirit. So has He done for every mother's son, for every mother's daughter.
The little Babe, the Son of Mary, is true God in the flesh, and He Himself has become our Savior. He has joined Himself to us and to our children, precisely in our weakness, in our littleness, in our poverty, in our hurt and fear and suffering and death. He has become the great Champion of babes and infants, whom He does not despise but surely welcomes to Himself. But He does so by the Cross. The Mother's soul that magnifies Him is cut to the quick, severed by that dread Sword of the Spirit. The Cross of Christ is both merciless and full of mercy. It crucifies and raises. It sunders our children from us, in order to bring them to God the Father. So do we bring them to death, already, when we bring them to Holy Baptism. How, then, shall we not entrust them to Crucified and Risen One, with whom their lives are hidden in God forever?
It is the contradiction of the Cross that we feel and experience in the face of death, nowhere more poignantly than the death of our own children. It is the contradiction of the Cross of Christ, the beloved Child of God the Father and of the Blessed Mother Mary, that saves us from death forever. That promise is for us and for our children. Vivian's father and mother have been granted that faith by the Word and Spirit of God, and they have confessed it in the midst of their hurts and fears, as they named their baby girl at her Baptism: a lively resurrection (Anastasia). Their prayers and ours have been answered, according to the good and gracious will of God; He has kept Vivian in His mercy, and He has granted her the life everlasting. She has not died, but lives. So shall her body, too, in the resurrection, no longer in frailty and mortal infirmity, but in the immortal and imperishable glory of Christ; as she has shared His death, so too His bodily resurrection and ascension. Just now, her parents may not feel or experience any of that, nor anything else than darkness and death and the contradiction of the Cross. But the God who has been faithful to their daughter remains faithful to them, also; together with His Church in heaven and on earth He shall sustain them. We mourn with them, and on their behalf we rejoice in the living hope of the Anastasia, lest their grief prevent them from that rejoicing. Viva La Vivian!
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