From “The Country Doctor” (ca. 1968)
Once upon a time there was a country doctor, a pompous and unimaginative man. He was summoned to attend the wife of the squire [in giving birth]. After the affair was successfully over, the woman, still only half alive, moaned that it was unbearable — why, she asked, does one have to suffer such pain? The doctor showed his learning. “My dear lady,” he said, “if you had looked as I have looked into the workings of nature, you would perceive that the nobler the animal, the more developed must be its position when it separates itself from its parent; and the more developed the condition of the offspring, the greater the wrench to the parent must be. Now man is the noblest of the animals. The pain of human childbirth is the price of man’s nobility.”
“That makes it no better,” she murmured, “it hurts just the same.” At that moment, her mother came into the room and showed her son. And she began to think how it would be when she suckled him; and suddenly, she remembered no more the anguish, for her joy of that little man, who was born into the world.
The Word of God brings upon human pain and strife the consolation of eternal love. It is often thought that the Christian preacher is called upon to imitate the doctor in my fable, and somehow to prove that the intolerable evils which ravage the earth are only the price of greater good.
But the answer naturally provoked by such explanations is inevitably the same as the suffering woman: “That makes it no better, it hurts just the same.” Or even, “If this is what God’s love does, then for God’s sake let me have a taste of his wrath.”
No, God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations, he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds, “Peace upon earth, goodwill to men…and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live. The mother revives, as her thought attaches itself to this new life. And Mary of all mothers is most blessed, as her thought ranges forward over the happy tasks of which her life hereafter must consist, the nurture and protection of her son. Here is a son in whose life she can always more richly live; for he is life itself, and to live in him is to live in life everlasting.
If we live in our own children, we live in what must fail and disappoint us; we may even be so unhappy as to outlive them. But if we live in the Son whom God has given, we have a life which will not fail, but always deepens and extends. This is the peace, this is the joy God gives: our joy is swaddled in the cradle, our peace is crucified, our glory rises from the tomb.
Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was an English Anglo-Catholic priest, philosopher, and theologian, who taught theology at Oxford for decades, serving for the last eight years of his life as warden of Keble College. He was a close friend and advisor to C. S. Lewis and his sermons were greatly admired in his lifetime and published after his death.