Life and Death in the City of Joy

Let me tell you a story.  Last year around this time, I went to visit a friend of mine in the hospital in a distant Indian city.  Every morning and night I walked alone the three kilometers between her apartment and the hospital and every day I passed the same family: two or three women, two young children and a couple babies, living on a dirty corner of sidewalk two streets from the flat.

On the way one morning, I stopped to buy a coke for my friend and realized I’d forgotten my wallet.  I headed back, but as I neared the this family’s corner I saw a scuffle and then heard a cry.  I was the first stranger to arrive on the scene: one of the mothers was crumpled up on the ground, rocking back and forth.  She was screaming and screaming, and as I drew near I saw she had the limp body of a child cradled in her arms.  When I’d walked by mere minutes before, the toddlers had been lively, chasing each other around on the pavement, now one of them lay lifeless.

I was pushed away by the the gathering crowds, suddenly struck by the reality that I had nothing to offer this woman, no language of comfort in common, no ability to share her suffering, no faith to raise the dead.  I stumbled home, wiping useless tears from my face.  When I headed back to the hospital later, they were already burning incense around a child-sized pyre, the tiny figure cloaked in red sheets, and by the time I came home that night there was no sign that anything at all had changed for that family.

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, 
Rachel is weeping
for her children and refusing to be comforted, 
because they are no more.
Jeremiah 31:15, Matt 2:18

The winter Jesus was born every baby boy in the region died.  I never really thought about that till I spent my own Christmas reflecting on the death of a child.  In many ways, I didn’t understand the Christmas story at all till I’d lived in India.  Here, people live precariously, so close to death you might even say they’re standing in its shadow.  I never thought, for instance, about the risk of death for a child born without sanitation, next to manure.  Or that, for the poor and homeless, the warmth of livestock may be better than most can hope for.  The winter nights get so cold here in Delhi that people die out on the street.  Some are dying as I write this.

Two thousand years ago, a child was born into the cold, into the darkness.  Not just the darkness of night, but the darkness of life in this world.  He was born right into the unbearable pain of all of it, into the filth, greeted by the stench of animals and the slaughter of infants.  This is the world He lived and died in and this is the world He came to save.

I forget, sometimes, that Jesus wasn’t born in Delhi.  The angels didn’t herald his coming to the sheep-herders of Uttar Pradesh.  Many of them have yet to hear His name spoken aloud.  But He was born for them as surely as He was born for you or me. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel said.  “I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all people.”  Jesus is coming to India.  He is being born again on the dirty street corners.  His light is shining into the darkness of winter nights.  The time is coming when He will be heralded here, and abroad.  He is coming.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2


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