“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Justin C. Cloute
The words cut through the cold December air, announcing a reality that was hard to accept. The little boy, just two and a half years old, had died on Christmas Eve. What had begun as a cough and fever quickly escalated into something much worse. The doctor at the small hospital said that there was something wrong with his liver and that they were doing everything they could.
But it wasn’t enough. Despite the prayers and the tears, the boy fell asleep one last time in his mother’s arms. When she went home that night, she saw the presents under the tree with his name on them. Who would open them now? Since she was the organist and her husband was the pastor for their small church, Christmas Eve services were canceled. Days later, as she watched the small casket being lowered into the frozen ground, she worried that her baby would be cold. The pain and sadness was overwhelming. Christmas would never be the same for this family.
JESUS UNDERSTANDS OUR PAIN
Yet, Christmas would still be Christmas. It would still be Christmas because they knew that years earlier another mom had held her precious baby in her arms. As Mary stared into her child’s eyes, perhaps she remembered some of the things the angels had said: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31,32). “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). “ ‘They will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’ ” (Matthew 1:23).
This child was the Son of God and Savior of the world. But that didn’t mean his life would be exempt from tragedy. Several days after he was born, Mary heard those mysterious words spoken by Simeon at the temple: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34,35). A sword will pierce your own soul too! Even though Mary didn’t completely understand what this meant at the time, she would.
Christmas reminds us that instead of remaining far away from our sadness, Jesus was born into it. Since we live in pain, brokenness, and sin, God himself descended into the depths of our pain, brokenness, and sin. The Lord of creation, the one who formed the first man from the dust of the earth and then woman from that man, became dust himself.
The God who is exalted above the highest heavens stooped down to be born on earth. He wasn’t born into a palace or a mansion, because he didn’t come to rule with earthly power or to be treated as he deserved. Instead, he was born in Bethlehem, a lowly little town in Judea, and placed in a feeding trough among the smells of manure and dirt. He came to be dust like us, and the circumstances of his birth set the pattern for the rest of his life. Isaiah says, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (53:3). Jesus came to be like us, to be a sufferer, to be human.
Christmas means that Jesus knows and understands our pain. The writer to the Hebrews says, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers” (2:10,11). Jesus knows what it is like to be lonely and filled with sadness. He knows what it is like to experience disappointment and loss. He knows what it is like to be human and is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters.
JESUS DESTROYED OUT ETERNAL PAIN
But our brother not only came to understand our pain; he came to do something about it. Instead of doubting or complaining when faced with suffering, he trusted in his heavenly Father. Then after living his entire life in obedience to God’s will and commands, he gave himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin.
This is what makes our celebration of Christmas so joyful. We not only know that God came to be with us, but we also know why he came to be with us. Again the writer to the Hebrews says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of
death—that is, the devil” (2:14). Jesus was born to die, because that’s what it took to save us. The baby who was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger would one day be crucified and again wrapped in cloths before being placed in a tomb. The fact that God raised him from the dead three days later proves that Jesus not only knows about pain, suffering, and death—and experienced it all—but he also destroyed it all.
After the boy’s death at that small church in Washington services were canceled on Christmas Eve, but not on the next day. The pastor had to preach the message of Christmas because this was the only thing that gave meaning to his child’s death. It was the only thing that brought hope in the midst of his sadness. The birth of the child in Bethlehem meant that the death of his son was not the end. It meant that even though there was sadness and pain, since his boy had already died with Christ in Baptism, he would be raised again to be with Christ forever. It meant that even though his son was dust, he was dust redeemed. It meant that even though Christmas would never be the same for him or his wife, there was still a reason for joy.
Beneath all of the outward preparations and celebrations of this holiday, this is what makes Christmas so special. The message of Christmas assures us that even when we do not understand the suffering in our lives, we do not bear it alone. And even if we never completely heal from the pain or overcome the sadness, Christmas announces good news and great joy for us and for all people, because the birth of the child of Bethlehem brings forgiveness and eternal salvation.
The birth of this child means that God cares.
Justin Cloute is pastor at Mount Zion, Missoula, Montana.
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Author: Justin C. Cloute
Volume 101, Number 12
Issue: December 2014
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