Week Three: Grieving mothers

Illustrations by Ivanka Demchuk & Peter Voth

Scripture: Matt 11:28–30 (NRSV)
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Question: Can you remember a time when you felt God was lifting your burdens or helping you with weariness?

“Canticle of Mary”*

Grieving Mothers

YEARS AGO, while I was serving as an intern pastor at a church in Vermont, the senior pastor sent me to call on a woman who hadn’t attended worship for a while. My job was to encourage her to return. But first, I had to understand why she had stopped coming.

When I asked, she said she couldn’t stand the pity she received from the congregation. She and her husband had been childless for years and had undergone fertility treatments. Eventually, they conceived. Their son, Chad, was healthy at birth, but at age 3 he contracted a terrible disease, and, after a short illness, died in his mother’s arms. After telling me this story, the woman looked at me and asked, “Why did God let my baby die?”

The pious answers she kept getting from her church friends didn’t comfort her at all. Indeed, such “comfort” as anyone can give to a grieving parent does not consist in explaining the death of the child, but in remaining faithfully — and often silently — present to the bereaved. We are instructed to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), not talk them out of their sorrow.

Grieving mothers play a key role in the Christmas story. A group of Persian priests, known as magi, saw a bright new star in the sky and understood it to foretell the birth of the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). They followed the star for hundreds of miles and came to Jerusalem, the capital of the Roman province of Judea. Herod, then reigning as the client king of Judea, sent them to Bethlehem, where the ancient prophecies said the “shepherd of Israel” would be born, and ordered them to return to him with the details. Herod said that he wanted to pay the child homage, but, in fact, he meant to kill his tiny rival.

We are instructed to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), not talk them out of their sorrow.

The magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and left for Persia by another way. Herod was not deterred. In a rage, he sent his soldiers to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age to make sure no one would usurp his throne. Here’s how Matthew concludes this grim scene: “So the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet were fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Rama, wailing and loud laments; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing all consolation, because they were no more’” (Matthew 2:17–18).

To this day, the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches celebrate Holy Innocents’ Day on Dec. 28, and the Eastern Orthodox churches on the 29th. It deserves a place on Protestant calendars, too, for it reminds us there are dark forces at work in the world, opposing God’s plan and doing great damage to God’s people.

We don’t know why God didn’t rescue the other children from Herod’s wrath, just as we don’t know why God let little Chad die in his mother’s arms. We do know God ultimately triumphs over these hostile forces. Jesus was spared as an infant to make possible his sacrifice for all of us on Good Friday and his defeat of death on Easter Sunday.

Rick Steele is professor of moral and historical theology at SPU.

*“Canticle of Mary”
Music: Jeffrey L. Ames and S. Scott Leaman
Text: From Luke 1:46-52
©Colia Voce Music Inc.
SPU Treble Choir

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