After our daughter Allison was born with Down’s syndrome, Heather and I struggled for several months trying to make sense of what had happened and how we were going to cope with our newborn child. A neighboring pastor, a Presbyterian minister, took me out for lunch one day and shared an experience that he had with a couple in his parish many years ago. This is what he told me.
The pastor was called to the hospital to be with a couple who belonged to his church. The wife was having a difficult time giving birth. Shortly after the baby was born, when the mother, father and pastor were in the hospital room, the doctor walked in and spared few words in telling the news. “Your baby is afflicted with Down’s syndrome, mongolism. I had expected this, but things were too far along before I could say for sure. Anyway, that’s unfortunately how it is.”
“Is the baby healthy?” the mother asked.
“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you,” said the doctor. “The baby is healthy – except for the problem. However, the baby does have a slight, rather common, respiratory ailment. We now have it on a respirator. My advice to you is to let me take it off the respirator. If we do so, that might solve things. I mean, it’s a possibility.”
“It’s not a possibility for us,” said the parents.
“Look, I know how you feel,” responded the doctor, “but you need to know what you’re doing. You already have two beautiful kids. Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress, family problems. Is it fair to do this to the children you have? Is it fair to bring this upon yourselves and your children? This is going to result in a lot of suffering.”
“Suffering?” the mother said quietly. “You see, we appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians. We have accepted the Lord. He suffered for us. So we will try to suffer for the baby if we must.”
“Not many kids today get a chance to be part of this kind of thing,” the father added. “Our kids will handle it.”
The doctor turned to the pastor and said, “Pastor, I hope you can do something with them.” Then he left the room to continue his rounds.
Three days later, the doctor and the pastor watched the couple leave the hospital with their new baby. They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle, but it seemed a heavy burden, a weight on their shoulders. They left the hospital and went out into a cold gray March morning in New York State.
“It will be too much for them,” said the doctor to the pastor. “You ought to have talked them out of it. You should have helped them understand.”
But the pastor noticed something as the doctor spoke. There was a curious look on the faces of the couple, a look as if the burden was not too heavy at all, as if it was a light, a privilege, a sign, borne up, as if on another’s shoulders, being led toward some high place the doctor would not be going, following a way he would not understand.
In telling me this story, my minister friend concluded, “Gary, that couple was walking in the way of Jesus. They were willing to do something the doctor simply could not comprehend – to sacrifice their own comfort and security for the sake of their child.”
Lent is a time to focus on the sacrificial life of Jesus who calls us to live sacrificially for him. Throughout the Lenten season, the message is one of sacrifice. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus gave himself for us. Now we are called to give ourselves to him, to God and other people.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus utters one of the most poignant laments in the entire Bible. Reflecting on that great city, Jerusalem, he cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Have you ever seen a chicken hawk go after its prey? The old mother hen is often aware of the presence of the hawk in time to gather her chicks under her wing. With a furious fuss she squawks till the brood is safe by her side. She fluffs out her wings and protects them with her own body. The chicken hawk dives, and the old hen turns her body toward it and cocks a wary eye without moving from her children. The predator comes in again for the kill and the mother spreads her wings even wider. A third time the hawk dives only to be thwarted by the determined self-sacrifice of the mother hen. She is too big to be a target and the chicks are too safe to be seized, so the hawk flies away.
I have to admit I knew nothing about hens until several years ago when Heather, Allison and I were passing through Mission, British Columbia. I got into a conversation with a farmer who told about the day when the hen house caught fire and burned down. When he surveyed the wreckage, there was a hen lying dead near the door of the hen house. As he bent down to pick up the dead hen, out came four chicks from beneath her burnt body. The chicks had survived the fire because they were insulated by the shelter of their mother’s wings.
Jesus used the image of a mother hen gathering her chicks to herself to give us an image of sacrifice. He knew what lay ahead for him. He knew death was only a matter of time. That rejection and betrayal would result in his crucifixion. Jesus knew what was coming, yet just days before his death he gives an image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. It’s as if he could find no more powerful image of love than a mother protecting her young. For it is one thing to live for your children; it is quite another to die for them. Jesus dies for us, and he does so because he loves us.
The late Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom told a story about a young woman who made the supreme sacrifice. It was during the time of the Civil War in Russia in a small provincial village which had changed hands. A 27-year-old mother was trapped with her two small children. Her husband belonged to the opposite side. Unable to escape she spent day and night in hiding, fearful of capture and execution.
One night a neighbor of about the same age came to the young woman and said, “You have been discovered. They are coming for you tonight to shoot you. You must leave.”
The mother looked at her two small children and said, “Where can I go? How can I get away with these children? They could not walk fast enough or far enough for us not to be caught.”
And this neighbor suddenly became a neighbor in the full sense of the gospel. She said with a smile, “They will not go after you because I will take your place.” The mother said, “But they will shoot you.”
The neighbor replied, “Yes, but I have no children. You must leave.” And the mother went.
The young woman stayed behind – her name was Natalie. Night fell. It was cold and dark and wet. This young woman alone, expecting nothing from anyone except death, faced this death she was about to suffer for no reason – she was young and healthy, and they were not after her.
Natalie must have gone to the door more than once and thought to herself, “I have only to push it open and I’m free.” But she did not go out. She did not try to save her life. She stayed and there she would be shot that night. (1)
The mother and the two children escaped with their lives. But the story does not end there. Remember the words of St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” We might wonder what those words mean. Well, the mother and her children know one thing: theirs are borrowed lives. Their own lives died with Natalie: she goes on living through them. They live because she died. She gave her life to give them life. And now they live with a life that belongs to her.
And that is what Jesus did for us. On the cross he took our place and died to give us life. So the question for us today is: If Jesus gave his life for us, what are we giving back to him? How will I respond to the gift of life with my life? How will I use my life in such a way that makes this world a little more Christ-like by my passing through it? How will I show my gratitude for what God has done in giving himself to me by my giving to others? As I am fond of saying: eternal life comes to us on the way to someone else. If we keep it to ourselves, we die. If we share it with others, we live. Salvation is always received by passing it on to others.
Remember that couple with the Down’s syndrome child? Well, twenty-six years after their son was born, the couple were still members of my minister friend’s church. They along with their son Billy were regular attenders most every Sunday. Billy served as an usher who greeted people and handed them a bulletin. During the week he lived in a group home but he was with his parents every weekend. His parents said they couldn’t imagine life without him – he was a blessing to them and to their other two children. Yes, there were some tough times, but through it all they never doubted they made the right decision in keeping Billy on the respirator and bringing him home from the hospital.
I don’t know what sacrifice means to you. It means different things to different people. We all have our own circumstances, our own struggles. Most of the important decisions in life are rarely clear-cut. There is always a shade of gray, some nuance or ambiguity. It’s easy to rationalize our behavior, to justify our actions. But the key for Christians in making any decision is to walk the way of Jesus – to do as much as we can, however we can, by whatever means we can, to fill this world with God’s love for every human being, especially the weak, the vulnerable and the disabled – keeping in mind that Jesus showed just how much he loved us when he died for us on cross.
So what can we give for the gift of life except to live our lives faithfully and fully for Jesus?
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. (2)
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 21, 2016
Text – Luke 13:31-35
Lent 2, C
1. Anthony Bloom and George Lefebvre, Courage to Pray (New York: Paulist
2. Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Stanza 4, Common Praise
(Toronto: Anglican Church of Canada), Hymn 386