Cabrini High School students act out a living nativity scene.

At my neighborhood church, the nativity scene rests each year not far from a large crucifix at the center of the sanctuary, which has sometimes struck me as an inconvenient spoiler in the story of Christmas. Looking at the ceramic babe in the manger, I don’t like being reminded of the later chapter that unfolds at Calvary. It can seem too much to think of that bright baby in the stable and suffering at the same time.

With age, though, I’m coming to understand that pain is present in the Christmas story, too. It’s the very thing that makes Christmas resonate, even among those of other faiths or no particular faith at all. The infant at the heart of Christmas came into the world with few comforts, dressed in rags and placed in a bed of straw. He was, we can assume, not the serenely placid newborn envisioned by artists when they depict the nativity. There was probably a good bit of crying on that first Christmas as a child in his earliest hours faced what could feel like an indifferent existence.

The story points to pain as something central to the human experience, a reality that not even the smallest of us can always avoid. It’s why the promise of Christmas, which calls us to do what we can to heal a hurting world, is as timeless as the world itself.

Danny Heitman's 'At Random': Beneath a lid, Christmas lies waiting

All of this came to mind last December when our teenage son entered the hospital for elective surgery. He wasn’t seriously ill and quickly made a full recovery. Although he’s stronger and taller and hairier than I am, he was placed in the children’s ward since he was still, technically, not quite an adult.

The staff tried hard to spread holiday cheer. Strands of tinsel circled the pillars of the recovery unit. A stuffed elf hung from one of the beeping monitors. A Christmas tree in the waiting room spoke of brighter times beyond the halls where parents worried over their sons and daughters.

Although hospitals are grounded in routine, I never got used to seeing sick children trying so bravely to get well. One evening, returning from the cafeteria, I spotted a little girl coming down the corridor. Tiny as a doll and just as beautiful, she was connected to an IV bag that her mom was wheeling behind her.

It didn’t seem fair that a life so young and tender would be touched by a trial like this, and of course it wasn’t. Our son left the hospital in time to enjoy Christmas. On Christmas Eve, kneeling over our living room manger as I unplugged the tree lights, I looked at the Christ Child in a new way. Maybe the message of Christmas is that while suffering darkens humanity, it’s not meant to define us. The creche and the cross affirm that hope, in this Christmas and all others.


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.