The Year Baby Jesus Had a Tracheostomy
A friend sent me this photo on Christmas Eve. "Baby Jesus has a trach this year," her text said.
Doll baby Jesus' mother is five-year old Maggie. Maggie's mother is a medic who spends her days training first responders in tracheostomy emergencies. Maggie's grandmother is a Sunday School director. Maggie's grandfather had a trach. Blend it all together and it is logical that when a baby was needed for the Family Service nativity at church, Maggie's trached baby doll was cast for the leading role.
The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the feeding trough had a trach.
It makes me catch my breath and brings tears to my eyes every time I look at the photo.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief...
Jesus is acquainted with Nathaniel's grief and the sorrow of disability. I know that. At least theologically and generally, I believe that Jesus and God know our sorrows. But Baby Jesus in the church Christmas pageant with a trach? He is that acquainted with our sorrow and grief? The idea of it is slightly unsettling and at the same time deeply comforting.
Psalm 53:3 goes on... He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief like one from whom people hide their faces...
Last fall Rich, Nathaniel, and I were at a community playground and a little group of girls about Maggie's age followed Nathaniel everywhere. I tried to make light conversation with them, and Rich tried to include them in the game of chase he was playing with Nathaniel. They were not interested in light conversation or chase. They wanted to look at Nathaniel. Then as soon as they caught a glimpse of his trach, they would turn their heads away and whisper to one another. One little girl eventually spoke for the group, "He is disabled, isn't he?" she asked me. "I could tell when I looked at his face."
The playground girls' response was not unique. Children and adults alike have responded in similar manner. It is common to want to hide our faces when someone's appearance is unexpected and perhaps even scary. I admit that I have done the same. Rather than see the person, I see the alarming realness of their disability and look away. It is not unlike my tendency to look away from the manger baby grown up to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin during the Easter pageant. Though I know every year it is only a reenactment, I cringe at the idea of a thorn crown thrust on His head or nails driven into His flesh. I look away.
Using Maggie's doll baby put that unfamiliar, uneasy, I-want-to-look-away from the ugliness and the cost of suffering and sin right where He got His O Holy Night start - in the manger. Seeing a portrayal of Jesus simultaneously so fresh from God and so identified with Nathaniel's handicap causes me to wrestle. Faith is messy like that. Because as much as we want to desperately cling to the idea of a perfect newborn in the manger, the God-King made flesh to dwell among us, we desperately need Him to be familiar with our deepest heartaches and trials. Maggie and her sisters, all cast as wisemen, approach the Christ Child. The baby with the trach. The candles glow and the congregation sings, "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." No crying because of his God-likeness or because of his willingness to bare mankind's, Nathaniel's, afflictions?
Rich and I have been wrestling with Nathaniel's long term disability, an inability to make audible sound, for months. We have found comfort, hope, and a deeper understanding of our role through God's Word.
We are reminded from Exodus, chapter 4 and John, chapter 9 that physical disabilities from birth can be the work of God and used by God to demonstrate His authority and power.
Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Muteness is specifically mentioned in other New Testament passages as a disability that provided opportunity for God to be glorified. As we struggle to understand the reason Nathaniel must face this challenge, we realize that his life's why is no different than the why of my life, Rich's life, our other children's, and all of mankind - we are created as we are to glorify and honor God.
As Nathaniel gains "his voice" in alternative ways, God will be glorified and many will praise Him. We have already seen this as we raise Nathaniel within our church community and larger community of friends and professionals.
God's word brings hope of full healing. We read in Isaiah, chapter 35 that Nathaniel will audibly speak someday. God promises that when His kingdom is restored, the mute will speak. And not just speak, but sing for joy. The illnesses and ailments of this life have a greater purpose.
Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison...
2 Corinthians 4:17
Do I long to hear Nathaniel's voice now? Yes, I do. But God has bigger plans for Nathaniel's audible voice than pleasing me as a parent. Nathaniel's audible voice will be restored for the purpose of singing joyful praises to his Creator.
Lastly, our Christian faith helps us understand our responsibility to Nathaniel. His muteness will demand our continued voices and advocating.
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute... defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
These thoughts and scriptures do not dismiss sadness. But setting Nathaniel's upcoming surgery and lifelong disability in the context of faith, we find comfort, hope, and instruction. I write the verses and thoughts for myself to return to as much as I write them for others. I know I will need reminded of them in the days and weeks ahead. I also write to thank little Maggie and her family for the beautiful picture of Jesus this Christmas - His innocence as a newborn babe and the foreshadowing of His willingness to bear our sorrows in His own body.
A deep thank you to Maggie's family and friends for allowing me to share this story and photos.