A Mother Receives Her Dead Son

Is it possible to have a preferred station of the Cross—as in, “Which step in Christ’s journey to  the tomb brings the most fruitful meditation”? This might vary, over time, but for several years,  it’s been a question easy for me to answer. The thirteenth station, Jesus is taken down from the  Cross. (We adore thee Oh Christ…!)  

I realized this when I found I was supplementing the usual meditations with my own thoughts. I  thought this might be a station Mary in her lifetime might willingly relive, not with gladness, but  with solemn receptivity once again, just to hold his body. 

At the thirteenth station, Mary would finally be able to stop breathing for him. Breathe,  breathe, breathe. Life would be ushered out with her breathing; a gush of water, a gush of  blood, the labor was over. She could move again. At last she could do something for her son. It  was a work she would immediately set to—receive his pitiful body, draw him to her heart,  caress him. Gentle the limbs that could no longer suffer. It was a privileged intimacy a mother  could claim. There would be a little effort to clean him and comb clots out of his hair, remove  the larger clots of filth. There wasn’t much time. But she would hold her beloved son, now so  disfigured, and offer him back up to the Father, as Michelangelo intuitively portrays in the Pieta.  There Christ lies across her great marble lap with its folds of white cloth. Her left hand is held in  such a way to suggest, I think, the words, “Behold, my son. I offer him up in sacrifice to you. I  can do nothing more.”  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Unlike Abraham, she had not brought her son down from Mt. Moriah. Her perfect lamb. Her  son. When he is moved to the tomb, I do not fear for the Mother of Sorrows that the separation  is too great. She knows she holds the body of her son, but it is no longer her son. His soul has  parted, and so the Jesus who walked the earth was no longer there. They would take care of his  body, but it was no longer he. She could watch the rock be rolled into place. She could walk  away from the tomb. He had been taken away. 

Unlike Abraham, she had not brought her son down from Mt. Moriah. Her perfect lamb. Her  son.Tweet This

I think of these things because I had a precious son who died on a hospital bed between his  father and me. He was 8 and had a stem cell leukemia, CML, rare in children. We had watched  him suffer for three and a half years. He had accepted so much. On the day he died, it seemed  we breathed with him. I didn’t notice he had stopped, I was continuing to breath for him. “We  lost John,” my husband said gently.  

There were similarities to his birth: life in the breathing and then the labor was done. A worthy  birth; a worthy death. I knelt at his side and said the “Nunc dimitus.” Now, Lord, you may  dismiss your servant in peace… . I offered him back to God. Our beautiful son. His body was  bruised and the blood was beginning to pool. The disease in its last stages had disfigured him.  His right side had been pierced in a procedure to relieve the pressure in his lungs. I had seen  brown liquid gush into the container, his head bob for air. I couldn’t believe how much fluid 

there had been. He had not complained. How much more had he been through that we never  quite understood? 

We had begun this sad journey, like Dante in a dark woods, on Palm Sunday of 1998. Three and  a half years later, on the the night before he died (the simplest of words, but it sounds as if I  steal from the most precious of sacramental moments—a gift!), there were gifts to me  attending his death. I did not discover these until weeks later, meditating on our sorrowful  events. I thought of the last things John said: “I’m thirsty.” And later, “Dad, daddy!” and finally,  one last cry for Mom.  

I realized the gift of these words. I had heard them before, “I thirst,” “Abba, Father!” and words  directed to his mother. There is nothing extraordinary in this coincidence. Christ’s words are  the simplest of words. His are the words of many dying men and women. How good that he  said them. Of course, there is great meaning behind his words, but there is also simple truth.  He was like us. He was thirsty, like many men; he was thirsty like John. I thank him for those  words. And another thing for which I am grateful— Our Lord lamented his abandonment. If at  anytime I wanted to utter my own lamentation because of all the procedures and confusion and  failures and logistics and needles and absence from my other children, I could not utter the  words of abandonment. You are not abandoned if you hear another saying it before you, with  you, and continually after you. His distress at abandonment was suffered so that we might feel  a little less abandoned ourselves. I thank him for that. 

I think many of us wonder about the drama that might take place at a death bed. How could we  part from the darling child who had always depended on us for love and security? How could  we turn our back and walk away? Again, I am grateful. It had been unforeseen, but that was  not the difficult part. As my son lay still on the white sheets, I saw his beautiful body. I washed  his hair with baby shampoo and fluffed it the way we had when our children were infants and  made them sweet smelling; we cleaned him and dressed him in fresh clothes. We put on his  socks and had his shoes ready. We spent hours with him and honored him. There were others  who prayed with us, for ourselves, for John. People knelt in the corridor by our door. But it was  no longer John in the bed. Is this a metaphysical intuition? Was it simply a great grace? How  had my mind grasped that John was no longer there? What empirical evidence had revealed  this? We were able to walk away, but not from John. We were able to roll the stone across his  tomb. 

Catholics try to redeem their sorrows and their catastrophes. We try to sift out the good from  the evil. Desperate parents cling to words or gestures of tenderness and significance. We  recognize that with a child, he has suffered the evil, so how has it all worked for him? I know  that I cannot work this out, and no one else can offer me an explanation for why our child died.  There was nothing anyone could tell me that I could wrap my head around and say, “Oh, yes,  that’s why it happened, that makes sense.” It is too great for anyone to finally understand,  except in the most categorical language of human suffering and God’s permissive will. But we  can name our sufferings. And we can offer them up with an intent. We cannot make the 

sacrifice of a child until it is asked of us. We can embrace the holy will of God and be a little like  Abraham and Mary. We can take our lamb and offer him up. And we can say, as we offer him,  for the sake of the restoration of the Mass of the Ages. And so I did.

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