He is only in 7th grade, but he has witnessed the effects of original sin. In my first weeks as his teacher, I heard his story while eating lunch with other staff members.
Five years ago, Justin’s mother was driving home after attending a fundraiser event sponsored by another teacher. She had two of their three sons in the car. Two-year-old baby Carson and four-year-old Sam. Justin wasn’t in the car.
The accident took the life of Justin’s littlest brother, it caused significant brain damage to his mother, and it left a long scar on the right side of Sam’s face.
Every time there is a field trip and parents are asked to chaperone, Justin looks up and says, I can go, but – well, dad’s busy.
His father is busy. He’s busy raising two boys and caring for his wife. Amy struggles to speak, she cannot walk, and she labors to complete simple daily tasks.
Justin asks questions every now and then. They are the kind of questions any student might ask in a religion class. But behind the questions, there is a sincerity borne of experience; there remains a desire for answers and a willingness to receive them.
“Mrs. Bossert, what happens to us after we die? I mean – you know…” and then he groans loudly and runs the palm of his hand up his face and over the short hair on the top of his head.”
“Are you wondering what happens to the body or to the soul?” I ask.
He gathers himself together and tries again. “Well – I mean – there’s just nothing there. I’ve been to funerals and the person just lays there. It doesn’t do anything.” His gestures are big and the whole class is quiet.
I nod my head and pray for the necessary grace to respond well. I listen to my own words and critique them as they come out. Are they enough? Will the words falling off my tongue help him to heal a little more? Do I see peace and understanding registering on that perfect face?
When we come to the part in his religion book that talks about original sin, he asks more questions. Other students are learning a lesson on original sin and gathering information that they can put down on the next test. Justin is learning something more.
He is making sense of the senselessness in his life.
This is not God’s plan. He did not want us to know the very thing the serpent wanted us to know. He did not want us to understand good only when we contrast it against the terrors or tragedies or temptations of a world marred by original sin.
God wanted us to be in perfect relationship with Him and with one another.
The Fall placed the entire human race under the scourge of original sin. And God grieved.
God is the redeemer and healer. He restores what was lost through Adam’s sin.
Justin gets it. I can see that he does – because he nods his head as I speak. The others are listening and learning. Justin is healing.
Another teacher at the school teaches reading to Justin’s class. She asked the students to write one thing they would change about the world if they could.
Justin wrote that he wished there were no such things as car accidents.
I don’t understand why a two-year-old brother was killed. Why he would never enjoy a game of kickball like his brothers, Justin and Sam. Why he would never carry the football into the end zone on St. Francis Borgia’s field like Justin does every fall. Why he would never be able to bring birthday treats for the class like the other students who are in the grade Carson would have been in.
I don’t understand why Sam will always have a scar. Why he has to look at it every time he looks at a mirror. Why he has to be the youngest boy in the family when he was really the middle child.
I walk Sam and Justin across the road every day after school, and I watch as they race each other down the long lane that leads to their grandmother’s house. And I think of the little brother who will never run with them on this side of eternity. I think of Carson and know if I turn 90°, I will see the cemetery where that boy’s body rests.
This kind of tragedy was not God’s plan. But I have seen a family’s strength. A father who works hard to do-it-all. A grandmother who bakes “the best food in the world,” according to Justin. A mother who suffers well and still takes delight in her sons. A community that joined together to fund and build a handicapped-access home in the months that followed that accident. A school where teachers intensely love the two brothers that remain.
Original sin has dealt this world a terrible blow. We know how “good” good can be because we have seen how “evil” evil can be. God was right about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We were not made to eat of that poisonous fruit.
But the Tree of Life brings us the fruit that is the antidote.
What happens to a little brother who knew the Sacramental life even though he didn’t live long enough to learn his ABC’s? What happens to a toddler who has been washed of the stain of original sin and didn’t live long enough to have personal sin of his own?
That’s the good news, Justin. While his body rests in the cemetery beyond the schoolyard, he intercedes for you every minute of every day at the Throne of God! For you. For Mom. For Dad. For Sam. For us all.
The Tree of Life has the final Word. And Justin nods his head knowingly.