The Cross Over the Manger

Published December 5, 2019

The Catholic Thing

My dad was a doctor, and once when I was young and wondering what to make of myself, I asked him what he liked best about practicing medicine. His answers were all as one might expect. He enjoyed helping people. He enjoyed the balance of a regular routine and the challenge of problem-solving. He was blessed to be able to provide for his family.

When I asked him what he liked least about his profession, I suppose I expected him to mention late-night calls to the hospital or the bureaucratization of medicine. That I expected such complaints says much more about me than him. His answer was none of these. The hardest part about being a doctor, he said, was knowing that every one of his patients was going to die. And the most he could ever hope to do – the most any physician could ever hope to do – was forestall the inevitable.

I thought of this often when Dad got sick with the cancer that would eventually kill him. It was a great comfort to me, knowing that dad knew what he knew. His career in medicine had been a three-decade memento mori. Of course, the inevitability of death is no cause for resignation, still less for cynicism or despair. And Dad was anything but cynical or despairing. He would be a poor physician who professed indifference to health on account of human mortality. Dad was a man filled deep and abiding joy.

Dad understood that death is not the end of life; it’s our way home. It’s our chance, as C.S. Lewis once put it, to go farther up and farther in. Because Dad understood all this – because he lived this way, and cared for his patients this way, and faced his own death this way – he made it easier for the rest of us, through all our tears, to do the same. That’s as great a gift as a father can give.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad lately, in part because of the longing for family that this season of the year spontaneously evokes, but also because this is a time of the year when the Church speaks to us about death and the ending of all things. And of the hope that all things will be made whole in a world where so much is broken.


The work of making broken things whole can sometimes seem futile. Consider just the following three examples.

Sometime in the coming months, we are told, the Vatican will release the findings of its investigation into Theodore McCarrick. Those findings will, we hope, shed some light on how McCarrick was able to rise steadily through the hierarchy despite persistent rumors about his misdeeds. But even if we know all there is to know about McCarrick’s rise, or who is to share the blame, is there any hope that this knowledge will right the wrongs that have been done or repair the damage that he and others have caused?

In West Virginia, Bishop Mark Brennan has informed his disgraced predecessor, Bishop Michael Bransfield, that he expects specific apologies and restitution to be made for the myriad crimes and sins of which Bransfield stands accused. But even if Bransfield complies in full (and if he doesn’t, he will have to answer to the IRS and to Rome) will the evil he has brought about be undone?

A recent Associated Press report estimates that in New York, New Jersey, and California alone, newly filed lawsuits involving (overwhelmingly) old instances of abuse and misconduct could result in settlements of close to $4 billion. But can the wounds of abuse survivors be healed by monetary compensation of their just claims against men, many of whom are dead and gone? Can the Church herself pay enough in settlements or issue enough apologies to restore the profound damage to the bodies and souls – and faith – of those who have been betrayed?

The answer, of course, to all these questions is, “No.” All our efforts at justice are insufficient. All our attempts to make whole what was broken by sin are, ultimately, inadequate. The most we can do by our efforts – the most any of us can ever hope to do – is not enough. This does not mean those efforts are in vain, simply that our hope is not to be found in our ability to heal, repair, restore, or reform. All these are needed, all our effort and zeal and wisdom are required. But we must know that they are not enough.

Advent is a season of hope because we believe that the One who does make things whole is on His way. He is our hope. He is the one who heals all. He is the divine physician. The healing He offers is accomplished, literally, through death. In this sense, the Cross always hangs over the manger – not a sign of ominous doom, not as a sword of Damocles, but as a sign of our salvation.

Death comes for us all. It is the wage of our sin. Thanks to the babe of Bethlehem, it is also our one true hope for healing. When we understand all this – if we live this way and face our own inadequacy and brokenness this way – we will help others, all throughout this valley of tears, to do the same. And we will be sharing in the work of the One who makes all things new.

That’s as great a gift as we can give.

© 2019 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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