22 April 2011

Woman, Behold Your Son

The death of a child is surely one of the most difficult and painful sorrows that anyone can ever suffer. In some respects, it hardly matters whether that child is three, or thirteen, or thirty-three, or in the first or third trimester in the womb. To lose your child is to be confronted with the absolute and utter futility of your mortal life, and of your human flesh under the curse of sin and death. What difference does anything make, when suffering, death and the grave await you and your children, either sooner or later?

In truth, that is the legacy that you have inherited from your father Adam and your mother Eve, and if you have any children of your own, it is the legacy that you have handed over to them in turn. Perhaps you have already had to bury your children. Or perhaps you have had no spouse or child at all, which may spare you some sorrow of loss, but maybe it has also left you feeling lonely and alone to begin with. If you do not bequeath the legacy of sin to anyone after you, neither are you any further ahead than those who do.

There still remains death to contend with: in yourself, and in all your loved ones, whatever their relationship to you may be. In Adam, all men die, because all men sin, and so it is with all the children of men. Each and all return to the dust of the ground, as surely as the serpent must crawl across the ground on his belly and eat dust as he goes.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is not spared this pain and sorrow, but she too is cut to the quick and pierced through the heart by the death of her dear Son, just as St. Simeon had prophesied several decades previous. Do not suppose that it was easier for her, or any less painful, just because she knew (or should have known) that it was coming. For every mother who has ever had to mourn the fruit of her own womb, there is a special kinship here to be found in the Mother of God, who stood at the foot of the Cross and watched her Jesus die.

He had been her little Boy, like any mother’s son, whom she had carried and delivered, nursed and diapered, and taught so many things over the years, as He grew and learned. What little games had they played? What smiles had He given her? What bedtime stories and naptime cuddles had they shared? And shall He now be so cruelly put to death before her very eyes, without touching her heart and soul at their core?

Not for nothing does He die, although this Seed of the Woman is the one Man who did not have to perish, the one Son of Adam who was not conceived and born in sin, and who had no sin of His own. For He is the Son of God from all eternity, and He was conceived of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. Thus, it was not out of necessity, but solely out of divine and holy love, that He was born of the Woman under the Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law.

Not only did He become flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, but He voluntarily took upon Himself the curse and consequences of sin. He became, not only human, but mortal, and He bore all the sins of the whole world in His own Body to the Cross. He dies, then, not for any sins of His own — for He has none — but for the sins of all His mortal fathers and mothers, and for all their sinful mortal children, for all His brothers and sisters in the flesh.

He dies for you and for your sins. And so St. Mary grieves her Son.

What is one to do with grief like that?

You may be tempted to say or suggest that, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is surely no big deal. After all, her Jesus doesn’t even stay dead for very long, but He rises again on the Third Day. It all turns out okay, and really much better than “okay,” and everything is fine. All of which is true, but of course it is no less true for you than it is for St. Mary. The joy and hope of her Son’s Resurrection is also for you and for your children. Everything hinges on His death and on His Resurrection from the dead, which are fully accomplished, once and for all, without any iffiness.

Therefore, just as St. Mary shares the same grief as so many other parents before her and after, so do you share the same hope and promise in her Son.

Learn, then, to live in that hope and confidence of Christ Jesus. Not as though death were to be taken lightly or laughed off. Neither Jesus nor His dear Mother laugh at death, which is no joke, nor is it funny, but it is a gross intrusion upon the Lord’s good creation. It is the fruit of sin, and it is vile. But for all of that, it does not get to have the last word, because it has been defeated by this death of Christ, the Son of God, in human flesh and blood.

So, where and how do you now live? Are you still trying to make a life for yourself in this mortal world, even though you are constantly confronted with its futility? Are you attempting to invest yourself in earthly empires, even though you should know that all such enterprises will collapse and fail. Are you hoping to establish a dynasty for yourself and all your sons and daughters of death, despite the fact that none of you will survive this present age?

Where is the house in which you can actually be safe and sound? Where are you truly at home, able to rest in peace? To what household and family do you really belong?

You can go looking and searching for all of these things on your own — and to some extent, that is what all of your restless seeking is after — but you’ll not find it apart from Christ and His Word. Your “destiny” apart from Him is death and the grave, the place of the skull, the dust of the ground, and what is worse, to be cast out and cut off from the presence of God forever.

Sadly, the same legacy of sin that is putting you to death, also turns you away from the Lord your God, even now; away from His tender mercy and His gracious promises.

Adam and Eve took hold of the one thing He had not given, the one thing He had forbidden them, in the hopes of finding something better for themselves than the life they already had in Him. And when they had thus fallen into sin, they tried to run away and hide from Him, and to cover their naked shame with leaves. Cast out of the garden, but given the promise of the Gospel — of the Woman’s Seed who would crush and defeat the serpent and reconcile the world to God — the first man and his bride learned to hope in the Lord and to call upon His Name. But see, already, what their sin has wrought: the Woman brings forth her firstborn son, and she is so optimistic at first, but then he kills his little brother in a jealous rage, and the woman is bereft of her son.

Standing over the hole in the ground where the body of your son or daughter has been laid to rest, and standing at the foot of the Cross with Mother Mary, you are tempted to despair, to anger and bitterness, confusion and fear. You are tempted to cast about for some explanation that will make it make sense, or you are driven to run away and hide. And yet you can’t escape. You’re left with empty hands, an aching heart, a lonely house with too many chairs anymore, and the naked shame of your own sin and your own death.

But the Lord who loves you, dear one, does not willingly grieve the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. He takes no pleasure in death, nor is He nonchalant about your pain. He has subjected His own good creation to such futility in the hope of His own redemption, in the eager anticipation of His gracious adoption of many sons and many daughters, the many brethren of His only-begotten Son, Christ Jesus.

Here, then, is another Seth in place of Abel; a new and better Lamb in the place of Isaac, and in the place of all the firstborn sons of Israel; and a greater Son than Solomon, in place of the week-old little boy of David and Uriah’s wife. Here is the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God, who, as the Son of Mary also, is given and poured out by His Father for all the children of sin and death.

Behold, His garments are removed to clothe and cover you, and in His nakedness He bears your shame. He does not run away and hide, nor does He turn His eyes away from you, but He willingly bears the curse and consequence of sin and lays down His own life in love.

He does not grasp or seize or take, but He receives and eats the bread of affliction from His Father’s hand, so that He Himself becomes your Bread of Life: His Body the Fruit of a better Tree, His Blood the Fruit of this true Vine. Take, and eat, He says. He does not forbid you. Drink, He says. Taste and see. By this Food, freely given by God, for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, you shall not die, but live.

The Son cares for His Mother, and He entrusts her to a good man who provides for her a house and home. The Lord gives her another son in this man, the beloved disciple, and he shall honor her as a Mother in Christ Jesus. The same Lord Jesus provides for you, as well, in your bereavement and mourning. He does care for the widow and the orphan in distress. He also hears your cries, and He shall not leave you forsaken. He has given Himself for you, and He shall not withhold His goodness from you.

Look around you, even here. These are your mothers and your sons, your sisters and daughters, your fathers and brothers in Christ. Should you not love them, and shall they not love you, in the mercy and compassion of your dear Lord Jesus? You are not helpless or alone. You are not without a home and family. And if you find no need in yourself, then behold the needs of your neighbors, round about you here and elsewhere, and help them.

Who among you has had a miscarriage and now mourns in silent sorrow? Whose parents are ill and dying? Whose job is in danger? Who is overwhelmed and struggling to manage, to get by? Who is drowning in depression and despair?

Who among you stands at the foot of the Cross, waiting upon the Word of the Lord, and wondering (if not worrying) whatever shall become of you now?

Take heart, dear child of God. He has not forgotten you. For you are the disciple whom Jesus loves — He loves you dearly; yes, even you. And not only has He given you to comfort and care for your brothers and sisters in His Name, and for widows and orphans in their distress, but He has also laid you upon the bosom of His Church, to find in her your Mother.

From her font, by the Word and Spirit of God, you have been conceived and born again as a son of God in Christ. And at her festal board, the Son of Mary is still given in the same flesh and blood, like yours, in which He was born for you, and lived and died for you; in which He has risen from the dead for you, and lives and reigns forever at the right hand of His God and Father.

As He has made you a member of His Bride, the Church, the Mother of all the living, and as He has given you a place here in the home of all His beloved disciples, so is your place, your house and home, with Him in heaven.

From “the place of the skull,” you know that He is taken to be laid to rest in the garden. And now, it is right that you should mourn His death, on this day in particular. But not as those who have no hope. For His rest in the tomb is not the end, but a genuine Sabbath Rest, by which He has sanctified the graves of all His saints, including your grave and your children’s.

His departure is not from life into death, but from this vale of tears into Paradise, into the gracious and glorious presence of God. And as He has called you to be His own, and He loves you, so does He bring you with Himself through death into life, and back to an even better garden than your first parents were cast out of.

Even now, you are not found naked, but you are clothed with Christ and His righteousness, so that you have nothing to be ashamed of and no need to be afraid.

Even now, you are fed from the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, so that, in the midst of mortal life, in the face of death and the grave, though you are dying, yet, behold, you live.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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