A Grieving Mother Finds Comfort in the Face of Jesus

Could portraying Mary in a church Easter production finally bring her comfort?

Posted in , Mar 26, 2021

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It is spring—the world around me slowly reawakening, blushing with early blooming azaleas—but I don’t feel its promise. As I drive through my neighborhood on my way to perform in my church’s Easter production, I feel only the darkness that has been hovering over me for weeks, that has threatened to overwhelm me every spring since I lost my six-year-old son, Jeremy.

It was spring when he died, hit by a car as he was riding his bike just a few blocks from home. Six years have passed, and most of the time I am able to drive down the street where he was killed and not think about what happened. But now I can’t help remembering how the sunlight filtered through the unfurling leaves that afternoon in 1992 when Jeremy left our house on his bicycle, zipping down the driveway for what would be the last time.

I shake my head, as if I can dispel the memories crowding my mind, and try to focus on the evening’s performance, the final one, in which I will play Mary at the foot of the cross, singing a song of mourning for her dead son.

Several months ago, the director of the Easter production had come to me and asked if I would play the part. She knew about Jeremy, and she’d said with great tenderness, “I know it will be very hard for you, but you can do it. The Lord will use you.” There was no pressure—I could have said no. But I had prayed so many times for the Lord to help me make sense of my grief, to turn it into his glory. How could I refuse?

So far I have managed to get through the weeks of rehearsals and the two performances before this one. I cannot sing without crying. I cannot even think of the song without tears, but I have managed. Still, the pain of my loss, renewed each year around the anniversary of my son’s death, is more intense than ever. I haven’t felt the slightest whisper of the joy I know Easter is supposed to bring.

Just get through tonight, I tell myself as I pull into the church parking lot, and then it will be over. You won’t have to relive your suffering again.

Inside the building, I change into my costume, a simple robe and a blue veil. Backstage, I mentally rehearse my song. As always, when I reach the words “Is this the boy I raised?”* I falter, thinking not of Mary’s son but of my own. And I see not Jesus’ face but a freckled reflection of my son’s. My Jeremy.

The ache goes so deep, it is all I can do not to cry out. I close my eyes, weary from thinking of things I’ve trained myself not to dwell upon. Oh, Lord, I pray, I have cried long enough for Jeremy. Tonight let me cry for you.

But as soon as I take my place on stage, past and present collide in my head, relentless.

The actor playing Jesus kneels before a whipping post. As a soldier scourges him, he flinches, then moans in pain.

“Jeremy’s been in an accident,” my husband tells me and leads me to a waiting police car.

A sneering Roman forces the crown of thorns onto his head. Blood trickles down his cheek. Moments later, Jesus looks directly into my eyes as he strains to carry the heavy wooden cross on his back. I reach toward him, desperate to stop his suffering.

I hear my husband pray, “We gave him to you when he was born, Lord, and he is yours now.” I want to scream, “But this was not what we meant. Please, Lord, not this!”

The sound of the hammer as it drives spikes through Jesus’ hands and feet makes me shudder.

A solemn-faced nurse stands in the doorway of the waiting room. “The doctors have been trying to revive him for so long. They will have to stop soon. There’s nothing more we can do.”

Jesus hangs from the cross and stares down at me, his eyes burning with agony. A soldier hurls water at him, mocking his pain. I cannot look; neither can I turn away. He cries out, “Why have you forsaken me?” The torment in his voice echoes in my soul.

Then when he is still, his body is brought down from the cross. I rest his head on my arms and remove the thorny crown. Gently I wipe the blood away from his eyes, peacefully closed now.

“I want to see him,” I tell the doctor. We are led down a corridor to the room where Jeremy lies on a stainless-steel table, wearing the blue shorts he changed into just a few hours earlier.

When my son was born, I remember counting his fingers and toes, touching his face and examining it for the tiniest likeness to anyone else in our family. As he lies there, cold and still, I do the same, trying to memorize the shape of each finger, the softness of his blond curls. I trace the curve of his upper lip, the pale shell of his ear, knowing this one touch will have to last me for the rest of my life. I don’t want to forget a single precious detail.

At the foot of the cross, I begin my song. I stroke Jesus’ hair and hold his hand against my cheek, as I know Mary would have. In sorrow, in mourning, I sing, “Is this the boy I raised?”

The words float from my lips. I look down at the one I cradle in my arms and, as always, I weep. But this time they are tears of release. My grief has let go, and I think, Oh, Jesus, thank you…

For tonight it is his face alone I see. And I see in it how much he is with me, even in my suffering. Especially in my suffering. In reliving it, I have been drawn closer to him because once, long ago, he lived it too.

At the end of the production, when the choir sings in celebration of the Resurrection, I step back onstage and join in. “Hallelujah!” My voice lifts, as does my heart.

It is spring. As I drive through my neighborhood, I see that everything around me is transformed, warmed by the sun, graced with the green of budding trees, and I remember my son…not so much the pain of losing him but the joy of loving him. For the world is tinged with hope, the Lord’s true promise of spring. 

*From Mary’s Song by Dallas Holm, 1979. Reprinted by permission of Brentwood Benson Music.

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