So, without sharing graphic details, let’s just say that the recently celebrated Christmas season did not unfold in my family circle like a Hallmark movie. This, despite not only my prayers but my rather beside-the-point “practical” attempts to incarnate in our midst the typical “hallmarks” of the season—the tree, the manger scene, the looping presentation of A Christmas Story on TV (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”), the phone calls to absent family members, the wrapping paper, the ugly sweaters, the dinner with umpteen dishes, the Boxing Day lethargy and ensuing slow buildup to the New Year.
The particulars don’t matter, because we all can supply our own, if not for this Christmas or similar events occurring over the past year, then for many and sundry individual times and places in our lives where bad things kept breaking in to frustrate the magic of this or that, or maybe even when horrific and catastrophic things left you not just morosely suffering and fearful but in some sense stuck.
Maybe, like me, in such situations you pray your usual prayers for miraculous interventions (“. . . and World Peace”), wondering a little testily why those undeniable goods continue to be delayed. And maybe, finally, you come to consider that Christ’s own earthly life was curiously unlike a Hallmark movie.
What would it have looked like, if Mary’s prayers for her son Jesus had resembled mine for those I love and if, in addition, they had been granted by God? What if, worn down by the ceaseless importunities of this me-version of Mary, God the Father had, like the unjust Judge in the parable, thrown up his metaphorical hands and exasperatedly said, “All right, already! I’m giving you what you ask for!”
I imagine that, after some suspenseful scenes of mounting altercations between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, tossed in with a few menacing remarks from Pontius Pilate about the need to knock some Jewish heads together to maintain the Roman peace, a deus ex machina of divinely inspired sentimentality would unaccountably move everyone—Jesus, Judas, the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and Pontius Pilate—to gather for a group hug followed by a rousing chorus of Kumbaya. Meaning no crucifixion—no Mary and John at the foot of the cross, no anguish at their Beloved’s agony—and no Resurrection three days later, no upending of death that, despite the glorious results, could apparently come only after the very extremities of pain, betrayal, and abandonment were drained.
What does that mean?
Those miracles that have imposed victories in the unlikeliest contests, like the Battle of Lepanto, and those more private miracles that instantaneously restore health, cure addictions, or convert unbelievers do happen. But not always, not usually, not at all often, compared to the sum total of human suffering and human sufferers. We are left with mountainous accumulations of human pain and death to mystify our minds and appall our hearts.
At the very opening of the Christian era, there occurs Herod’s murderous slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem (“Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more”; Matt 2:18). Every lifespan since then has seen cause for weeping that could not be consoled. The century most recently behind us produced cataracts of such tears—over the toll of the Holocaust, the mass killings and persecutions in Communist countries, the piles of dead from two World Wars and multitudes of more localized conflicts, and all the private crucifixions of the heart experienced in individual lives.
Americans in the pro-life movement have known just in our own country the mysterious and ongoing pain of witnessing tens of millions of innocents dying violently in the womb over the past half century. What does it mean? Is all this death and pain reducible to some kind of calculus that we can master and make use of—so many rosaries or fasts or marches to save so many lives? What formula will stop the cycle of sin and death and maimed bodies and souls? What combination of prayers and actions—and on what scale—can put an end to these, if Christ’s own prayers could not forestall his crucifixion, and if Christ’s crucifixion could not preemptively put an end to all human ills?
There are great mysteries of divine discretion here, which do not at all discourage us from acting but do teach us to temper any happy-clappy Hallmark optimism. As revealed in our experience, life is both much better and much worse than a Hallmark movie. In fact, Christian hope is a different thing entirely from mere optimism. For the great and good eucatastrophe of the Resurrection (eucatastrophe being J.R.R. Tolkien’s term for a sudden and unlooked-for happy ending) is not a side-stepping of pain and real intermediate catastrophes, but something that somehow mysteriously depends upon these as preconditions for its appearance—something that unexpectedly flowers from them and reveals itself as their surprising fruit.
Meantime, until the final unfolding of the eucatastrophe that will end our present mixed-bag of a world, however far or near that event may be, we are left balanced between the poles of two seemingly contradictory admonishments: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt 7:7) and “Father, . . . not my will, but yours be done” (Matt. 26:39).
Between those poles of vertiginous possibility and obedient resignation runs the current of our own prayers and actions on behalf of the unborn and all the other suffering innocents and not-so-innocents that we encounter in the course of our lives.