Katie Mason was a nine-year girl visiting a Connecticut summer fair with several of her playmates. Her mother, Joan, briefly left Katie with the other mothers as she crossed the road toward a concession stand. Just then she heard a commotion behind her…
People were scattering in all directions, trying to get away from a large, disheveled man who stood over a fallen little girl, his outstretched right arm pummeling furiously away at her. Even through the haze of her frozen incomprehension, Joan knew instantly that the child lying on her side at the crazed man’s feet was Katie. At first, she saw only the arm, then realized all at once that in its hand was a clutched bloody object. It was a hunting knife, about seven inches long.1
Freeze that frame and now picture a middle-aged Nazarene woman living shortly after the lifetime of Jesus. She finds her way into a newly formed assembly celebrating the wondrous birth of Jesus. She hears the story and slowly does the horrible math – this “wondrous” event is the reason why her two-year old infant son was bludgeoned to death thirty-two years earlier. The birth of Jesus occasioned the death of dozens of innocent boys by a paranoid schizophrenic named Herod.2 Where is the wonder in that? The clues were discovered in the 20th century, in murders like Katie Mason’s.
Dr. Sherwin Nuland teaches surgery and the history of medicine of Yale University. In his book How We Die, Nuland recounts the stabbing of Katie Mason in a heart-wrenching chapter titled “Murder and Serenity.” Katie did not miraculously survive the paranoid schizophrenic’s knife repeatedly entering her face and upper body. She died of acute hemorrhage leading to hypovolemic shock. Nuland, however, glimpses something wonderful – even though the murder is horrific and he’s a confirmed skeptic toward God.
As the crazed attacker was pulled off Katie, the mother rushed forward to take her daughter in her arms. “Katie, Katie” was all she could coo to the cradled babe. “The child’s neck and head were covered in blood and her dress was soaked in it,” writes Nuland, “but her eyes were clear.” Katie died “in a state of apparent tranquility and release, an appearance of surprise” – not horror. This is the same surprising impression Katie’s mom later recorded in her diary.
She was gazing at me and beyond me, and there was a warm feeling in me. I spoke her name a few times and told her I loved her. And then I knew I had to take her to a safe place – I had to get her way from this man, but it was already too late. I carried her that way for a short distance, and then I thought, What am I doing? Where am I taking her? I got down on my knees and very gently put her down…
When I had first gone to her, I saw some glimmer in her eyes, almost like some sort of recognition. There was no look of pain in her eyes, but instead it was a look of surprise… Do you know what it looked like? It looked like a release…
Joan Mason was describing what science has learned is the human body’s ability to self-generate endorphins – endogenous morphine – that create a sense of drowsiness and peace. Katie’s final moments on earth were filled with warmth and tranquility while gazing into her mother’s loving eyes; a horrible scene Nuland finds coupled with the wonder of the human body… and perhaps a God who created such a wondrous mechanism in humans.
I am neither the first to wonder about the mysterious ways in which God is thought to work His inscrutable will nor the source of the rumor that He may use chemicals to do it… As a confirmed skeptic, I am bound by the conviction that we must not only question all things but be willing to believe that all things are possible… Nothing would please me more than proof of His existence, and of a blissful afterlife, too.3
Faith, according to Louise Cowan, is the widening of imagination.4 Was it possible for a Nazarene mother who lost her son at Christmas to imagine Jesus’ birth as wondrous? The intertwining of wonder with murder vivifies the Christmas story, but only if we have a vivid imagination. It’s been said that the older we get, the harder it is to fill our hearts with wonder and imagination. If Christmas has become nothing more than jostling crowds, fighting mall traffic, checking off gift lists, and selecting which Christmas Eve service to attend, perhaps it’s time to renew our wonder at the idea that God invaded planet earth in human form. Jesus’ birth unleashed peace mixed with mayhem. Katie Mason’s murder and the Christmas story – and imagining all that transpired in the hidden recesses – might be the best way to explain the unimaginable wonders coupled with the unspeakable woes of our world. But we would need a renewed sense of wonder to ever imagine that.
1 Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, (New York: Knopf, 1994)
2 For the complete – and horribly tragic – story, see the Book of Matthew, chapter two.
3 Nuland, p.138
4 Louise Cowan is the former chairman of the English department and dean of the graduate school at the University of Dallas.