One December evening my four-year-old daughter snuggled into my lap for her bedtime story. Opening our children’s Bible, I contentedly, almost absent-mindedly, began to recount the familiar Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men…and Herod.
“Wait!” my daughter stopped me. She looked up, confusion and distress reflected in the tears already filling her big, brown eyes.
“He…killed all the babies?”
Her question jolted me from complacence to clarity. I suddenly realized how many times I’d read that story without saying, “Wait!” Without stopping to contemplate the horror of Herod’s decree, or weep with those mothers and children. The radiance of the story’s miracles had blinded me to the background of pain, obscured the fact that the “glad tidings of great joy” for some had precipitated anguish for others. I’d completely missed the paradox Matthew acknowledges: that in this life miracles inevitably coexist with divine restraint, hope with despair, salvation with destruction, joy with heartache, and meaning with emptiness.
I wanted to shield my little one from the terrible reality I’d inadvertently exposed her to. I wanted to backtrack, minimize, redirect—like the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who, concerned that images of slaughtered children might diminish the joy of Advent, had artists paint over the most disturbing scenes in Bruegel’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” leaving a sanitized portrayal of marauding soldiers and women weeping over livestock and cheeses.
But Jesus came to open our eyes, not close them, for eyes that cannot see lead to hearts that cannot feel. Hence, his purpose was not to shield us from grief, but to acquaint us with it; not to distract us from sorrow, but to turn our faces toward it, that seeing, we might “perceive” (Greek: horaó), that is, discern intellectually, comprehend spiritually, partake of experientially. Painting over the pain of others may help us feel “happier,” but it also denies the truth Reinhold Niebuhr noted, that sometimes things “much better than happiness…are attainable.” Vision, for example. Empathy. Compassion.
So that night my daughter and I paused to restore Bruegel’s masterpiece, to uncover the pain, view the agony, feel the loss. Mother and child, weeping for other mothers and children bereft of heavenly peace. It was better than happiness. It was a holy night.
 John 9:39; Matt. 13:15
 Isaiah 53:3; Mark 4:12; Strong’s Greek: 3708. ὁράω (horaó) — to see, perceive, attend to (biblehub.com)
 Selections from Emerson, Essays on American Civilization