Mary said, “God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.” – Luke 1:50 (NRSV)
In the winter of 1944-45, a German blockade in the occupied Netherlands cut off shipments of food and other necessities. The resulting famine is known as the Hunger Winter. After its end, The Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study famously followed the survivors. It and subsequent studies discovered that children of those who were pregnant during the Hunger Winter were more likely to have a whole range of health problems, from diabetes to schizophrenia to heart disease and more. Not only that, there is evidence to suggest that the grandchildren of survivors also have higher rates of a variety of illnesses. The descendants have all the food they need, but they’re famine-struck nevertheless.
Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD is heritable. For the sins done to their fathers, children suffer not just behaviorally but phenotypically. Grandchildren bear the epigenetic scars and hungers of their grandparents.
Jesus’ mother Mary had been through plenty of trauma and was betting there’d be more. It’s no accident she sang these words while she was pregnant. She knew her son would be born with her bruises; she was determined to pass God’s grace on as well.
The Bible is preoccupied with God’s constancy through the generations. The writers want to be sure you know that God is here with mercy for you in the midst of whatever befalls you in your lifetime. But they also want to be sure you know that God was there when the thing happened to your grandfather that’s shaping you now. God will be there, too, if your child is born with your wounds.
Damage can last generations. God knows that grace is only helpful if it does, too.
For intergenerational salvation, for heritable grace, thank you. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is Chaplain of the Protestant Cooperative Ministry at Cornell University. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.