And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:8-14
I used to think that finding peace was impossible as a bereaved mom. In the months after Ethan’s birth and death, the devastating reality of all that I had lost could burst in on me anywhere. It might happen as I walked past a pregnant woman with a beautiful round belly on the street, or when I accidently turned down the wrong aisle in the grocery store and found myself surrounded by baby bottles and tiny terrycloth bibs, or when I opened the mailbox to find a store flier filled with rosy-cheeked infants. The world was full of reminders that I had been a mother and that my child was gone forever.
In the months after my son was born and died, I had to stop listening to the news on the radio or reading the newspaper. Nearly every story seemed to lead back to the shattered heart of a mother whose child had been killed, gone missing, been deported, gotten locked up in jail, or done something so terrible that it could never be undone. I could feel the grief of these other mothers as if it lived in my own chest. It took my breath away, knocked me off my feet, left me weeping over my breakfast or my computer screen.
Even now, four years later, moments of grief catch me by surprise, leaving me breathless with the fierceness of my longing for my missing son. But slowly, as the years have gone by, I have learned this: One of the gifts of loving Ethan is the gift of a troubled heart.
The peace that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth was not the peace of a calm and untroubled soul. It was shalom – the peace that comes when a whole community flourishes, when everyone has enough, when no mother is torn unnecessarily from her child, when no child begins life in dire circumstances. It is the peace of a community that is ruled with a kind of justice that takes the needs of everyone into account. It’s a peace that can be measured by the well-being of the most vulnerable members of a community.
Ethan was one of the most vulnerable human beings you could possibly imagine – a newborn who was disfigured and disabled, who never cried or even took a breath. His tiny body was broken beyond repair, his brain was incapable of gaining consciousness. There was nothing that could be done for him except to love him as he was.
And loving him cracked my heart wide open. Everywhere I go, I see children like Ethan – vulnerable and beautiful, gifts from God. And everywhere I go, I see moms like me – filled with a fierce unquenchable love for the children they have carried in their wombs, in their arms, in their hearts.
I see them now, and I cannot forget them – the mom who pulled into our church parking lot to wait out an immigration checkpoint with her toddler, the mom from my neighborhood who has watched her beautiful teenage boy get entangled with a gang and locked up in jail, the mom who just turned 80 and has no one to care for her disabled daughter when she is gone, the pregnant mom whose husband’s mental illness keeps them on the run from city to city without a roof over their heads or enough to eat.
It is not an accident that the sign of the arrival of God’s reign of peace was a newborn infant born in a livestock barn to peasant parents who would shortly become refugees. At the heart of this story of peace are the little ones whose lives crack our hearts wide open, leaving us troubled and longing for the day when God’s reign of peace will reach every corner of creation and provide a safe and sheltered space for the most vulnerable among us to flourish.
Let us pray:
Come, Lord Jesus, and trouble our hearts with a longing for your reign of peace. Amen.
Dayna is a member of Durham Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church USA) and part of the Rutba House new monastic community. She and her husband Eric live in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC and are parents of one living son, Noah. Their firstborn son, Ethan, was born and died in 2009. Dayna is hoping this Advent for a heart open to God’s longings for the most vulnerable among us.