What follows is a guest post from Claire Nieman, a good friend of mine from Seattle Pacific and church. In it she reflects on birth, death, and Advent. Thanks to her for the beautiful piece and thanks to you for reading. -sdje
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This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different
(from Journey of the Magi, T. S. Eliot)
I was at work on the postpartum unit when the Marysville shooting happened. It was all anyone could talk about at the nurses’ station. I feebly tried to change the subject a couple times, but the topic persisted. And how could it not? We talk about terrible things to attempt to fit them into the framework of what we know.
For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given
That afternoon, one of my teenage patients wanted to go to the cafeteria and I had some extra time, so I brought her baby into the nursery. As the endless talk of violence continued, I picked up the baby and held him while I sat in a rocking chair. “What are we doing here, my tiny friend?” I asked him. “How are we going to live?” Newborns have no ready answer for much of anything.
“He has set eternity in the human heart,” says Ecclesiastes, “yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Some of my baby patients withdraw so violently from the drugs their mothers have taken that they need morphine to relax at all. They are born wounded and yet they, too, hold eternity in their trembling hearts.
And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God
On Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, I will be the cantor at my church. One of the liturgical anthems the cantor leads is the Alleluia, sung before the Gospel reading. The Alleluia we sing during Advent is different from the one used in Ordinary Time. It is in a minor key, a strangely solemn take on a song of praise. In the middle of a season of spectacular vestments and tidings of comfort and joy is a paradoxical song of lament. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year, and even within the rhetoric of hope we are called to remember why we are waiting at all.
This year I know lament. I sing my minor-key Alleluia in a world where mercy seems to be in short supply, a world where we hold active-shooter drills in hospitals. I sing Alleluia for innocent human beings murdered by people who take an oath to “protect and serve,” who make me bow my head at the audacity of Isaiah’s promise that of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end. I sing Alleluia for the person who collapsed and died on the floor of my hospital lobby last week. I sing Alleluia for the children in my hospital’s NICU born so fragile they can only be touched every six hours. I sing the Alleluia for the boys of 5th West Ashton, who brought their mattresses out to the elevator so they would be there if Paul Lee returned to his room on that Thursday night. I sing Alleluia for Jim Mitre, a pediatric psych nurse who dedicated his life to showing kids that maybe something out there is worth waiting for. I sing Alleluia to remind myself of the eternity set in my own heart, what Miroslav Volf calls “our solace and our agony.”
But in the same anthem I also sing of the promises of John 1, the life that was the light for all people. It echoes what we will sing in April, when the world slowly shifts from gray to green. Alleluia, Christ is risen, death has been swallowed up in victory. I can hardly wait.
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.