Imagine opening a card this advent with the following script:
The years ahead of you are going to be full of intense suffering. You will be made profoundly sad. Your pain will be excruciating. It will feel like being stabbed in the gut over and over again.
That was the message Simeon of old gave Mary at the baby Jesus’ dedication service. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against. . . And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
If there is anyone who knew pain, it was Mary.
She and her husband were uprooted in the middle of the night, fleeing to Egypt to live as refugees in order to protect Jesus from a tyrannical, maniacal ruler set out to kill him. The displaced family is separated from family and friends in a foreign country, looking over their shoulders at every turn wondering if and when they will be caught.
When King Herod dies and his son succeeds him, Joseph is still deeply concerned about the child’s safety and instead of returning home, goes to the unwelcoming community of Nazareth.
Think of the many sleepless nights this couple experienced. Anxiety their constant nemesis. Adrenalin always running on high.
Now fast forward.
Jesus enters public ministry. He is in his hometown. Questions about his origins abound. “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son? . . . And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3).
The question wasn’t, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (as would be custom in Jewish culture) but, “Isn’t this Mary’s son?”
Thirty years later the “talk” is still going on. The scandal of Christ’s birth is not forgotten. Mary bears the stigma her entire life.
Sometime later, Jesus’ brothers tease him, daring him to stage a presence in Jerusalem, “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” Then the commentary, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (Jn. 7:1-5).
If you are Mary, think of the pain of mothering such a group. Your household is divided. You long to see all your children loving each other and getting along, but one of them is always excluded, never part of the inner circle. It hurts you to see this.
And then the worst.
You are an eyewitness to your son’s horrible execution. You hear the crowd’s cold, ruthless chanting, “Crucify him.” You see the welts on his body from the brutal beatings and floggings inflicted upon him. You see his body writhing in pain from the nails driven through his hands and feet. His agonizing cries reverberate through your entire body.
This is more than any mother has ever endured.
“A sword will pierce your soul.”
The question this Christmas story begs of each who claims allegiance to Christ is: “Has a sword pierced your soul?”
The same sword that pierced Mary’s soul will pierce those who follow in her footsteps. The interposition of Jesus in one’s life will result in pain. There is no getting around that.
The demands of Christ run completely against our proclivities toward safety, security, comfort, convenience. Christ’s way is hard, risky, and upside-down. Turning the other cheek!? Going the second mile!? Washing feet!? Jockeying for last chair!? Giving to anyone who asks!? Forgiving everyone who trespasses against us!? Come on!
Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).
The inclusion of Jesus will bring pain in your life. Added problems and challenges. Trouble. Hardship. Loss. Rejection. Suffering. It did for all those faithful witnesses we read about in the New Testament. Why should we think it would be any different for us?
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34).
“Cross” . . . not lazy-boy.
The acid test of whether or not we are following Christ is pain.
Not the pain that is self-inflicted due to stupid and sinful decisions. Not the pain that is par for the course from living in a broken world. But the pain that is provoked from true gospel-living.
Submission to Christ’s lordship will hurt—economically, relationally, vocationally, emotionally, geographically, recreationally, and maybe even physically. It may literally cost us our lives.
I tell our residents that if they are truly tracking with our program—entering more deeply into their discipleship (i.e., recovery)—they will experience the piercing of the sword. I warn them that as they invite Christ more and more into their lives, they will actually feel worse than when they arrived at certain points in their recovery journey. They will be called to new places of surrender resulting in more tension—“holy tension”— . . . pain. This is how the conversion process works.
Weightlifters have a saying: “No pain, no gain.” Perhaps the saying for those of us identifying as Christian is: “No pain, no proof.” No pain, no proof that we are walking in the way of Christ and properly aligned with His kingdom.
The late Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and professor, wrote, “Your life is not going to be easy, and it should not be easy. It ought to be hard. It ought to be radical; it ought to be restless; it ought to lead you to places you’d rather not go.”
So why bother? Few of us would self-identify as masochistic. Why willingly invite this pain?
With the pain comes peace, satisfaction, joy, . . . life. The pathway to the Prince of Peace is through pain. That is the paradox.
Remember these words of Paul? “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
If we are to be faithful as his witnesses, demonstrating the just, generous, hospitable, reconciling reign of God, we are going to have to do things and go places that are difficult.
CHRISTmas will upset your life.
May Christ’s Spirit empower you to be his “witnesses” (lit., martyrs, Acts 1:8), enabling you to embrace the pain he calls you to bear for the sake of the reconciliation he is bringing to the world.
”The same sword that pierced Mary’s soul will pierce those who follow in her footsteps.
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
(Jesus, taken from Mark 8:35)