Children Dying and Earnest Joy

An Advent Meditation

I didn’t expect to read about death in my Advent book, at least not children’s death. It’s one thing to call myself a vapor—it’s quite another to say that about my children, to be informed of specific ways they could die: sunstroke or “drowning in a pail of water,” deaths that could happen today.

In the collection Love Came Down, two days’ readings are excerpted from 17th-century theologian Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying. I know Advent is a penitential season, but Really, I think, challenge me about my own foibles and sins, not this description of how youth die. On Ash Wednesday when my girls receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads and are told to remember they are dust and will return to dust, I grit my teeth as I prepare for Easter. But I associate their death with Jesus’ death as an adult. I hope their deaths will occur far into the future when I will be gone from the earth myself. Not Advent where we are about to celebrate the birth of a baby.

Death became a lot harder to deal with once I had children. Nursing our first child Ruthie in a nursery with a southern exposure, I rocked with her in my arms, the sun warming my shoulder, and read The Poisonwood Bible. That is, I attempted to read it until I realized that a child with the same name was about die. The book lay on the floor gathering dust until I shoved it into a bookshelf.

Friends have recommended numerous times that my husband and I watch the British series Call the Midwife. My husband shakes his head. After the first episode, when seated on the couch next to him, I sobbed the last twenty minutes, dismayed at the possible death of a baby and a mother, he’s refused ever since.

And when the media reports nightmarish deaths of children, I lie in bed at night for weeks, saying, “Why, God, why?”

At our church, the Advent discussions have been based on psalms telling of Israel’s repentance and God’s response: challenge and joy. A friend commented about the word “glad” in Psalm 126: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”

“Not a lot of people say ‘glad’ in our society anymore. It sounds too earnest.” “Earnest”—I took that as my theme for Advent—“Have yourself an un-snarky Christmas,” one where what expands my kids’ eyes and smiles would expand mine too—even if it’s icy blue snowflake cupcakes at Target because the newest Christmas color is influenced by the latest Disney princess. Or perhaps earnest joy at Advent is a call to be less self-conscious, an Advent when I push away my pangs of guilt for ordering gifts online instead of shopping locally with two preschoolers and ignore my qualms about their enthusiasm for Santa Claus’s coming instead of Jesus’s.

I’d like to practice the enchantment of Christmas again, the kind fueled by anticipation. As a child, Christmas morning was as much magical for the gifts and the birthday it celebrated as for my father’s teasing refusal to let us out of our rooms, my sister and I, pajama-clad, jumping up and down on the orange-and-brown carpet of our bedroom in the door to the living room of my parents’ small house. This year, I thought, I can experience that again through my children’s eyes.

But earnest joy seems impossible in the face of children dying. As I write this, my family is recovering from influenza, not a stomach bug, but that awful respiratory virus I remember last hitting me in college. Two nights ago, I lay with my three-year-old as her body radiated heat from a fever. She shifted frequently, crying if I wasn’t there, setting a hand on my side or throwing a leg across my stomach to make sure. Between islands of sleep, my mind would float unsteadily on a story heard from my childhood, that my great-grandmother’s younger twin brother and sister, age four, died during the flu pandemic of 1918. I wondered such things as, How far apart did they die, prolonging the hope and the suffering?

The next morning, my younger daughter plays games on our Kindle, and I sit across from her, watching her face. I am feeding on her healthier appearance, thankful for her expressive blue eyes, tear-shaped like mine, and her tiny bridge of a nose as perfect as the one I had envied as a young person reading about Anne of Green Gables’s.  I am thankful too for children’s Ibuprofen and Tamiflu.

Children do die and they did die in the Christmas story. Their death is remembered on the Feast of Holy Innocents a few days after Christmas in the church calendar. In Matthew 2, fearful and wicked King Herod orders all the baby and toddler boys killed in Bethlehem. The holy family escapes to Egypt, but “Rachel weeping” about the murder of her children, as prophesied by Jeremiah, was a reality. Pudgy little ones, starting to crawl, to toddle, to talk, became the first martyrs.

N.T. Wright reminds us that Christmas is as much “about incomprehension, rejection, darkness, denial, stopped ears, and judgment” about Jesus’ coming as it is about “comfort and joy.”[1] If, as he claims, “heaven and earth are joined together in Jesus Christ,” how do I live in view of heartrending deaths? For when I imagine heaven present to me—the beginning of a promise fulfilled in the Messiah’s birth, I sense, in the words of another Brit that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” But today 2000 years after that birth, “you can go nowhere without treading upon a dead man’s bones,” in the words of Jeremy Taylor.

I don’t know if it was wrong for me to assume that my task this year was to see Christmas through my children’s eyes, to suck in some earnest joy, for surely heaven feels more present to those who haven’t grown weary and cynical. And yet God is asking that I see this holiday through others’ eyes too, such as Kay Warren, wife of Rick Warren, who wrote in a recent article that she resents, after the suicide of her son, receiving “cheerful” Christmas cards about her friends’ happy, complete families with no mention of her own family’s grief.[2]

Immanuel means “God with us.” It means Jesus present, heaven present, even if this world in need of healing hasn’t fully received Him. In the face of my children’s temporality, it does not feel like enough. But almost daily with my two daughters, I have been repeating these words from the Book of Common Prayer, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” Whatever happens to them, to me, I pray that when my hands or feet feverishly writhe out, they find His once-broken body curled around mine.
[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/decemberweb-only/151-42.0.html?start=2

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/december-web-only/kay-warren-stop-sending-cheery-christmas-cards.html

Heather Walker Peterson
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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