Last Sunday at thousands of churches across America, little children lisped, sang, and maybe occasionally shouted their way through a myriad of retellings and reinterpretations of the Christmas story. In our church’s rendition, my youngest nearly stole the whole show as the Shooting Star. Clad in a giant gold star costume, my 8-year-old sang, ran around the stage (and entire auditorium—barefoot), and generally threw herself into her role with all the enthusiasm an extroverted third grader could muster (which is to say, a lot). My heart was full as we returned home and I watched her make one last cookie- and adrenaline-fueled run down the hall to her bedroom. Naturally, I sat down at my laptop to share my maternal pride on social media. But as I uploaded the pictures of my daughter’s smiling, gold-starred self, headlines and pictures nearby brought a flood of tears to my eyes—tears that continue to flow even today. While my mother’s heart was bursting with maternal joy and pride, others were—and still are—breaking with bitter sorrow and unimaginable anguish.
The date of the Christmas pageant was the second anniversary of the Newtown school massacre. Two precious children the same age as my daughter lost their lives; their mothers lost a lifetime of future Christmas pageant memories. As I read the news of anniversary remembrances and prayed for them, my Twitter feed began to fill with news of an ISIS sympathizer taking hostages inside a downtown Sydney cafe. For 16 terrifying hours he kept customers and workers captive with guns and threats of bombs, eventually killing the manager and a customer (a mother of three young children) before being killed by police. Later in the week I awoke to news that Pakistani Taliban invaded a school in Peshawar and slaughtered more than 130 children, ranging from ages 10 and 16. Meanwhile, residents of one of the wealthiest counties in America were hiding in their homes as police hunted for an armed man who shot and killed his ex-wife and her extended family, including his 14-year-old niece, in cold blood.
In urban metropolises and third world cities, wealthy enclaves and impoverished communities, anguish and grief are replacing tidings of comfort and joy. What is the world coming to, where mothers and children are being slaughtered in such a hellish manner? What kind of times are these?
The same kind experienced by the mothers of Jesus’s earliest days.
When King Herod realized that the wise men, gone to worship a long-prophesied and newly born king, would not be returning reveal the baby’s location, he poured out his jealous rage on the young infant and toddler boys of an entire city (Matt. 2:16–18). All across Bethlehem and the surrounding region, the cries of baby boys were replaced with the piercing lamentations of their moms. No doubt Mary, hidden away in Egypt, shed many tears of her own as she clutched her young son and recalled the words of joy and blessing she’d sung over him in her womb not long before (Luke 1:46–55). How could what was happening now be part of what she sang then?
With fewer ways to mark the days than we have now, the memory of the massacre at Bethlehem perhaps faded for many. But never for the mothers who saw an entire generation of sons and heirs wrenched from their arms and hearts that dark night. Nor would it fade from the memory of Mary, the mother of the one who survived, the son whose birth caused the others to perish. Thirty years later, how much heavier was the burden of her grief when she, too, watched her son die at the hands of a capricious ruler and angry mob with murder in their hearts (John 19:26). How could she bear such grief? How can we?
Remember the man whose life was defined not only by the grief he experienced himself but also by the grief he carried for us (Isa. 53:4). The grief of the mothers of Bethlehem and Newtown, of Pennsburg and Peshawar, is the grief Jesus bore on the cross. There, the righteous ruler of the universe poured his holy anger onto his own Son, who willingly took the weight of the sin and the sorrow of the world so that it could one day be taken from us. Today—this moment—he is alive and seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 8:1), hearing our cries of sorrow, interceding for us, and reminding us that no tribulation or distress or danger or sword or gun can ultimately separate us from his love (Rom. 8:34–35). Because he’s alive a day is coming when he will return to make everything right, as only he can. Jesus will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things will have passed away (Rev. 21:4).
In this Advent season, as in the first, we weep as the Bethlehem mothers wept, we pray as they prayed, we say “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” and we wait with hope.