La Pieta. The Pity. One of Michelangelo's most famous works. And why not? It's a beautiful, intricate sculpture. But beyond that, it captures something that is simultaneously so often glossed over and yet so difficult to really understand: the emotions of a parent upon the death of a child.
We tend to look at the Christmas story in light of our religious knowledge of the event: Jesus, son of God, was born of a virgin, blah blah blah. We know the story so well, I think that, oftentimes, the deeper meaning is lost to us. You can't talk about the birth of Jesus without talking about the death of Jesus. The one leads to the other.
But what did this mean for Mary, who was, first and foremost, not "the chosen one of God" or "the blessed virgin," but simply a mother?
I'm really not sure that, thirty-four-ish years earlier, when Mary told the angel, "May it be unto me as you say," this picture popped into her head as she thought of her future with this child of God. Sure, the angel mentioned something about Jesus being the savior of the world. But what did that really mean? And anyway, that was so far away. Right now, he would just be a baby. And babies are cute.
But of course, the pregnancy didn't come without its hitches. I mean, Joseph kind of wasn't sure at first if he could really trust Mary. God is the father of your child? Really? And then the looks people gave her... But Joseph had a visit from an angel also. And so then he was cool. He protected her, watched out for her and for this unborn baby who was supposed to somehow save the world.
I can't imagine that, on that night when Jesus was born, messy and covered in birth fluids and squirming and screaming and trying to find Mary's breast because he was a hungry newborn, Mary thought that one day she would hold her son, this son, God's son, in her arms, and that his body would be cold and lifeless. When you hold this beautiful, amazing, wriggling new life, you're not thinking about the end of it. You're thinking about all the possibilities. You're thinking about what he's going to be like as a toddler, bringing you sticks and mudpies and bugs with broken wings. You're thinking about what he's going to be like when he goes to school, the kinds of friends he'll have, what you'll say when he talks back to you, how he'll get good marks on his assignments and garner compliments from his teachers for being such a good student. You're thinking about what he's going to be like as a teenager, which girls he might like, how strong he will be, how he will learn good work ethic from his father and build good, sturdy tables and wagons and houses. You're thinking about all the things that he will do in his life. You're thinking about his life.
I wonder if, as she held the limp body of her son, Mary thought back on all those hopes for him, if she thought back on all of those moments that had seemed, at the time, to not really matter. Did she kiss his cold forehead and remember the first time she kissed his warm, tiny baby forehead? Did she weep silently and watch her tears fall on his pale cheeks that used to be so rosy and had pulled up just so in the corner when he smiled at her? Did she brush the rumpled, matted hair from his brow and think back to how he had run around as a child with his hair all disheveled and he didn't even care?
Did she think back to that rush as she pulled his freshly-born body up to her chest, think back and remember that in that moment she had vowed to protect him with her life, because that's what mothers do? And now, as she looked down at his unmoving eyes, did she remember that vow and regret that this was the one thing she couldn't protect him from?
As a mother who has also experienced the loss of a child (though under very different circumstances), I can identify with the look on Mary's face in this sculpture. Her eyes are puffy and swollen from having cried out all her tears. Her lips are taut, unsmiling and unfrowning, because there is not a facial expression that could possibly convey the emotions in her heart. Her left hand is uplifted as if in question, speaking for her the only word she could probably think coherently:
Tonight, a lot of mothers and fathers are sitting in living rooms, hospital rooms, police stations, with this look on their faces, with their hands uplifted, asking the same question of "Why? Oh, dear God why?"
They are thinking back over all those little moments they might have missed, but are now forever lodged in their memories. They are remembering all the hopes and dreams they had for their children that will now never happen, all the possibilities that, in one moment of terror, have been forever lost.
In the coming days, their eyes will be swollen and puffy, their faces blank, because how can you really express that kind of grief and suffering? They will try to pull the remaining pieces of their lives back together, try to make some semblance of normal. But it will never be the same.
On that night, when Mary held her son, her precious little boy all grown up, in her arms, the world changed. Mary's world changed. But so did ours.
Because on that night that the Son of God died a tragic, horrific and humiliating death, we gained the possibility of the most beautiful life imaginable, one that transcends the normalcy of the every day, that goes beyond our finite understanding of life and death, and gives us a glorious freedom that we will not fully taste on this side of the curtain.
So while we come alongside these parents and family members and friends who have suffered such terrible loss, let us not lose touch with that deep vibration of expectancy. Because in the coming days, we will celebrate the birth of the Hope of the World, the Deliverance of Mankind. The one who conquered the power of death and brings us hope of a life to come.
To the families, friends, and loved ones of the victims of the tragedy in Newtown, CT today, I offer you my deepest sympathies, and please know that my most heartfelt prayers are being lifted to the King of Heaven for you this day and in the coming days. May your hearts find peace and wholeness in the inexplicable Love who comes down to sit with you and weep.