Before I formed you, I knew you | Fr Steve Rice

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Under the main altar there is a hollow space that, over the years, has been used as a place of repose for cremains not ready for burial; it’s our version of a crypt. It reminds me of the martyrs in Revelation 6 who were under the heavenly altar and were told to wait a little while longer. In our crypt there is a small, brass urn no larger than a can of Diet Coke. Inside are the cremains of a boy who was delivered at 24 weeks and did not survive. As his mother did not want the body, the hospital called Hayworth-Miller Funeral Home and they cremated the child, but what to do with him? The hospital asked if we would claim him and, of course, we did. About six months later (this was in 2017), I was at a meeting with various hospital leaders: director of the chaplaincy, director of the morgue, etc. One of the leaders started to share a difficult story about a 24 week delivery. The hospital staff named the child, Jeremiah. As the details emerged, I realized it was the same child that we have under our altar. This was confirmed through further conversation. After the meeting, I went to the hospital leader and asked why they named the child Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you?” I asked, quoting the first chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. She smiled with watery eyes and said, “Absolutely.”

I rarely address political issues because oftentimes there are legitimate reasons why faithful Christians may have opposing views. We must, however, fight for the protection of human life. I do not write this ignorant of the complexities or the difficulties; I’m quite aware. I have no interest in ignoring nor diminishing those difficulties. I am interested in recovering a framework in which we are able to theologically and morally address them. The recent legislation passed in New York and the comments made by the Governor of Virginia raise new questions about the protection of the sanctity of life; questions that need to be asked through a theological framework. Without that framework, we resort to fear and triumphalism. Before He formed us in the womb, God loved us. The protection of the least among us is the foundation from which we fight to protect and advocate for all human life. If we erode the personhood of those who unable fight for themselves, we will start to see the erosion of the personhood of those for whom no one is willing to fight. We see this already in the rise of pornography, sex-trafficking, attitudes toward the immigrant, the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill, and certainly the homeless. All of these issues have complexities and difficulties. The temptation will be to by-pass the difficulties and take the path of least resistance through oversimplification. We often give in to this temptation because we don’t have the theological foundation to engage the difficulties with both courage and humility.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met a person who truly is against the sanctity of human life. But I frequently meet people who are unsure how to navigate the gray, the difficult, the ambiguous, and the tragic. It is in these difficult places that Christ leads us and calls us. If we don’t seek Jesus Christ there, what hope is there? Let us rely on Holy Scripture and the Church as its commentary for courage, clarity, and compassion. Let us rely on Jesus Christ who loves us and always, always loved us - even before we were formed in the womb. 

Fr Steve Rice

Books I'm currently re-reading on the subject:

Stages on Life's Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics

The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics

Both of these books are by John Breck, an Orthodox priest, theologian and bioethicist. I find Fr Breck thoroughly rooted in Scripture, the Church, science, and pastoral practice.

Fr. Steve Rice