I never thought I’d learn about the goodness of the living Christ-child, through the death of a young boy.
One week this summer while serving as a Children’s Hospital chaplain, I spent many hours with a family who was beginning to recognize that their 11 year-old-son, Michael, was going to die soon. Chemo wasn’t working and there weren’t any options other than to sit in a cold room full of tears and prayers and anger and snot.
It was one of the most palpable images of grief I had ever witnessed.
I came in the next day expecting to start the whole thing over again with Michael’s family, but I was honestly exhausted. My veins stopped frozen when I walked into my office to learn that Michael had died three hours earlier. At the hospital where I was working, families and friends didn’t stick around too long after a death. They were usually ushered fairly quickly to one of those fluorescently lit consolation cells where they could begin to make “arrangements”—a word I quickly learned was as lethal as death itself. I didn’t think anyone would still be there, but I suddenly felt like I should go and see.
I can still remember the way my feet tingled as my oxfords trudged across the blue and violet tiles and into the elevator. The mosaic fish swimming along an imaginary river that I wished I could jump into and escape. Two. Three. Four. Five. The PICU was on five and as I walked down the hall, I felt a density that I wasn’t expecting. I turned the corner and instead of a vacant room, I saw Michael’s mother’s blonde locks through the sterile glass door. I tried to prepare myself to do some legitimate "pastoring," but with one step more I stood shell-shocked. Michael’s body had not yet been moved and because of paperwork, his corpse was still lying there in the bed. Visible and exposed. His mother sitting by herself next to him so his body wouldn’t be alone. Though I didn’t want to move, something pulled me through the doorway. “I’m so sorry,” I said, as I stared at his gray protruding belly peeking through his Spiderman pajamas. I wanted to blurt out like Mary did that time to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.”
I sat beside Michael’s mother and Michael’s body for the better part of the next hour in silence. There wasn’t much to say, was there? And yet, for some unclear reason, I was in the room. In the split second moment where I could have left the scene and no one would have known, I didn’t. There was something that wouldn’t let me turn away. What was it? It seems to me it was something like a calling. A calling towards the incarnational Christ— towards the recognition of God’s movement on earth.
In this moment of Christmas, in this season of Advent, calling becomes something more than a word us religious folks like to throw around in hopes of getting a job or a title or a collar one day. Instead, it becomes a gravitational force that beckons us to wade into the absolute muck and trust that Christ is standing beside us in it. This, my friends, is the incarnation. This is Christ coming to earth.
Tonight, after the gift-opening and the nephew-loving and the traditional-tamale-eating, I will light a candle for Michael. I will remember the death of a boy I hardly knew, but whose family showed me a glimpse of Christmas in July.
Our calling is rooted in a willingness to lean into the brokenness and chaos, and listen to the murmurs of resurrection and light. To be called is to have the courage to sit and marvel at the magnificent heaps of dry bones on this earth, knowing full well that the story isn’t over yet. That one day, bones that are dry will be enfleshed back to life. That one day, 11 year old boys who die of cancer, will be called out by name from their tombs. That one day, you and I will not see dimly but fully, the glory of a God who journeys to earth yesterday, today, and always.