All of us are to some degree afflicted with a tragically stunted image of who we are. This has never been so destructive in its intensity as it is in our times, when we are continually bombarded with false images of the meaning of human life, the meaning of the human person, and the ultimate destiny of man. We are saturated in anti-words, false words. In Jesus we have been given the Word made flesh, who shows us who we truly are and what we are to become. He does this not only through his teachings, but also by the witness of his life. God himself lays bare his heart in the total vulnerability of being fully human, to the point of permitting himself to be crucified. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as the prophet Isaiah says. He knew joy, but he accepted the suffering of our state in life. He accepted it because he knew that in the passage through the eye of the needle, through the narrow gate, a great secret is to be found, that on the other side is a vast and beautiful kingdom—an infinite kingdom in which the beauty of God the Father is ever creating more and more beauty, more and more love.
The children are lying on the living room rug, their stomachs distended with turkey and Christmas cake. Our guest, Fr. Brian, turns a beaming smile on them, lights his pipe, and seats himself with a sigh on the old rocking chair beside the wood-stove. He is content just to soak up the family atmosphere and listen to our children’s after-dinner banter.
“Tell us a story, Father,” they cry before long. The priest has a reputation for stories. More than that, he has all the time in the world for children.
“What kind of a story?” he asks.
“A Christmas story!”
“Well,” he says, pondering, his eyes growing thoughtful, “I think I do know a true story about a gift that was given on a Christmas day many years ago. But no, it’s too strange.”
Now they’re hooked. “Yes, yes, that one! That one!”
“It’s full of grown ups, “ he murmurs, “Nazis and war and things like that.”
“Yes, yes,” they squirm with anticipation.
His eyes go far away and his brow furrows. He rocks back and forth slowly, slowly, and the room grows quieter.
“I’m quite serious, when I tell you,” he says, “that this is a true story. I saw parts of it with my own eyes. I lived with the family to whom it happened.”
Like many well-intentioned parents of our generation, my wife and I believed that child-rearing was largely a matter of finding the right method. Oh, we believed in prayer and grace well enough, and we knew there were variations in temperament that made some children a little more difficult to raise than others. But we were convinced that no child could resist the high-octane mixture of our faith, our affection, and our parenting skills.
Then the Lord gave us Ben. I will not belabor you with a long list of his crimes and misdemeanors. Only let me say that from the moment of his birth he was an utterly delightful, exhausting, exasperating, and fascinating phenomenon whom Heaven had decided to drop into our laps for the good of our souls. He was strong-willed, imaginative, utterly charming, very energetic and . . . and . . .