Toby Sumpter took his young daughters with him to make pastoral calls at the nursing home one Christmas. And as they sang the familiar words of a Christmas Carol – “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found” – Toby says that he “choked” on the words because he believes them, and because the dying faces in front of him at the nursing home “ache for it to be true.”
I cannot think of a better catechism, a catechism of bodies and emotions and song, a weekly liturgy wherein I look death in the eyes, and I sing to death. I sing songs about a little Child to death. A little Child in whom was life, and how this life was the light of men and how He rules the world with His truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. And the question comes, why are we doing this again? Why do we sing to the dying? I have no words for these people. No words will possibly do. And these people don’t really have many words left either. How can we have words when life and death meet? There are no words. We can only sing this part… Sing about the Child. Sing to earth. Talk to her, and tell her that the Savior reigns, and to stop growing thorns in His garden. Sing death to death. Sing with aching hearts. Sing while we watch the world die. Sing and stare at the Child. Decorate your trees, fill up the stockings of the dying, and sing until one by one we all nod off in our wheelchairs. And then we will awake, startled by the final ‘Amen’ and we’ll look up and see the Child. And He will stare at each of us, and we will stare at Him. Death meet Life. Beginning meet End. And as we stare, He will touch us and we will be healed, and this ancient will put on infant, and this aged will put on Child. http://www.credenda.org
This past week there were three deaths in our community of faith. I always think of Toby’s essay – “Christmas for the Dying” – when this happens, and it happens every year. Culture scripts Christmas with the accent on happiness and good cheer. The church knows that Christmas has a different edge, and conducting funerals in brightly decorated sanctuaries sharpens it.
Here is the message I preached at one of our “Christmas funerals” this week. I offer it to you
“If Christ Has Not Been Born” – Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [Luke 2:1-7]
Perhaps you found those familiar words from the Gospel of Luke, his version of the Christmas story, an odd text to read here in this service this morning. But then again, it’s certainly no stranger than this setting, a sanctuary brightly decorated for Christmas. Death and Christmas just don’t go together in our heads or in our hearts. In this season when we are occupied with singing angels and lowing cattle, pretty paper and twinkling lights, musical nut-crackers and dancing sugar plum fairies, we don’t want to be bothered by thoughts of death. In this season of light and life, talk of death is obscene.
But death is an intruder, an uninvited guest who crashes the party. We don’t get to choose the times when or the places where he shows up. And sometimes, no matter how much we would prefer for it to be otherwise, a death coincides with Christmas. In the season when our focus is on Christ’s birth, we find ourselves having to deal with the death of someone we love, and the whole experience can leave us feeling just a little bit rattled, uneasy, emotionally torn in two. A death a Christmastime forces us to grapple with feelings that are not normally related – joy and sorrow, peace and pain, loss and happiness. In fact, you might be feeling just a little bit cheated sitting here this morning because in this season of celebration when others are gathering as families, you are having to deal with the absence of someone from yours.
All I want to suggest here this morning is that spiritually, it’s the exact opposite that’s true. Through my years of being a minister, and having sustained some of my own life’s greatest personal losses in the weeks before Christmas, I have slowly come to the conclusion that there might not be a better time to deal with death than right now, during Christmas.
Years ago, Madeleine L’Engle, the novelist, sustained a great family loss in the days before Christmas, and in all of their preparations for the funeral service, Christmas got pushed aside. It was after the services were over and the family had collapsed in physical and emotional exhaustion, that somebody pointed out that it was Christmas Eve. “Should we even bother trying celebrate it?” they asked. Wouldn’t it just be so much easier to forget it and go to bed? And as the voices in favor of cancelling Christmas were gaining momentum, Madeleine finally spoke up.
She told them that she really thought that they ought to keep Christmas that year just as they had planned to before the death of their loved one broke into their schedule as an uninvited intruder. In fact, Madeleine argued that it was probably more important for them to keep Christmas that year than any in other. As Madeleine explained –
If the love I define in my heart as Christian love means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas. If the birth of Jesus as the Christ means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas.
What did she mean?
A number of years ago a remarkable Christmas card was published by the title, “If Christ Had Not Come.” …The card pictured a minister falling asleep in his study on Christmas morning and dreaming of a world into which Jesus had never come.
In his dream, he saw himself walking through his house, but as he looked, he saw no Christmas decorations, no Christmas tree, no wreaths, no lights, no crèche, no Christmas cards, and no Christ to comfort and gladden hearts or to save us. He then walked onto the street outside, but there was no church with its spire pointing toward heaven. And when he came back and sat down in his library, he realized that every book about our Savior had disappeared. There were no carols or Christian music on the radio and no choirs or Christmas concerts on television.
The minister dreamed that the doorbell rang and that a messenger asked him to visit a friend’s dying mother. He reached her home, and as his friend sat and wept, he said, “I have something here that will comfort you.” He opened his Bible to look for a familiar promise, but it ended with Malachi. There was no Christmas story, no angelic chorus, no shepherds or Wise Men, no Sermon on the Mount, no parables, no miracles, no “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There was no gospel, no light of the world, no “God so loved the world”, no Lord’s Prayer, and no promise of hope and salvation, and all he could do was bow his head and weep with his friend and his mother in bitter despair.
Two days later he stood beside her coffin and conducted her funeral service, but there was no message of comfort, no words of a glorious resurrection, and no thought of a mansion awaiting her in heaven. There was only “dust to dust, and ashes to ashes,” and one long, eternal farewell. Finally he realized that Christ had not come, and he burst into tears, weeping bitterly in his sorrowful dream. There would be no Easter, and no hope of the kingdom of heaven and an age to come.
Then suddenly he awoke with a start, and a great shout of joy and praise burst from his lips as he heard a choir singing in a nearby church:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the King of angels,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
Ted Schroder – Christmas 2011
We must not let the beauty and warmth of this holiday season fool us into forgetting what Christmas is really all about. As we gaze lovingly upon that precious infant “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger,” we must not lose sight of the fact that He grew up to be our Savior. It’s why He came. As Dag Hammarskjold put it in his book Markings – “The manger is situated in Calvary; the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.” This is why the angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus” – “because he was going to save His people.” And while we need saving from lots of things – from sin and sickness, from danger and trouble, from tragedy and evil, from each other and ourselves – perhaps the biggest thing that we all need saving from is death. And the good news of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ we have just such a Savior.
My favorite Christmas Prayer was written by the author Robert Louis Stevenson. It goes like this –
Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men…
May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Because of Christmas, we can live our lives “happy to be one of God’s children,” and we can approach their close “with grateful thoughts, forgiven and forgiving, for Jesus’ sake.” Because of Christmas, a funeral is not an end that we have gather to mark, but a beginning that we come together to celebrate. Does death destroy Christmas? No, Christmas destroys death. And if the birth of Jesus as the Christ means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas – especially here and now. DBS+