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In one week, one day, one moment, so much can change; so much can be lost. And we are left torn apart and disoriented. Waves of shock, anger, and grief come and go and come and go. The words of the psalmist become ours: How long, O Lord, must we endure?
This is not how I would have it. Losses have piled up—personal, professional, communal, national—in a very short time. A student dies; a beloved institution flounders and hopes and dreams teeter on the edge of loss; a loved one receives one horrible diagnosis upon another; the wellbeing of many is threatened; twenty children die. Twenty.
If I could cancel Christmas, I would. Take down the tree. Turn off the lights. Open the presents another year. We say that advent is a time of groping in the darkness, waiting for light and life. We say that it ends after four weeks. But it doesn’t. Not for the vast majority of humanity. Not for the young boys of my student. Not for the families, friends, neighbors of those lost in Newtown, CT. Not for those who wake up with chronic illness. Not in this life.
Yet Christmas still comes somehow. There are (and will again be) signs of Christ’s life breaking into hopelessness and unbearable sorrow, raising us up from our ashes and the many deaths we experience in the here-and-now. Until those signs appear once more, we live in lament—what one has called “faith’s answer to despair” (D. Hunsinger, Pray Without Ceasing).
In 1983, Nicholas Wolterstorff, once professor of philosophy at Calvin College and then professor of philosophical theology at Yale University, lost his 23-year-old son in a tragic mountain climbing accident. He poured out his gut-wrenching lamentations onto paper and four years later published them with Eerdmans as Lament for a Son. While grief is always particular, I find myself returning to his words again and again when suffering and sorrow mount up. I share them here as a reminder that Christmas still comes, because Christ still comes. This coming is neither the saccharine holiday promised by our culture nor the superhero God touted in too much popular theology. It is instead the coming of a God whose being has been marked by suffering and sin yet not overcome by it; the coming of a God who refuses to let evil have the last word.
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
A new and more disturbing question now arises: Why do you permit yourself to suffer, O God? If the death of the devout costs you dear (Psalm 116:15), why do you permit it? Why do you not grasp joy?
“Put your hands in my wounds,” said the risen Jesus to Thomas, “and you will know who I am.” The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him—visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.
To believe in Christ’s rising from the grave is to accept it as a sign of our own rising from our graves. If for each of us it was our destiny to be obliterated, and for all of us together it was our destiny to fade away without a trace, then not Christ’s rising but my dear son’s early dying would be the logo of our fate. . . .
So I shall struggle to live with the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.