A Funeral at Christmastime

Last month, I had the honor of presiding at a funeral for a church member who passed away just before Christmas. She had been sick for quite a while, but the length of an illness does not diminish the pain and sadness that comes with loss. It seems to be magnified when it occurs at certain times throughout the year, and Christmas is one of those times.

For our Advent sermon series we looked at songs that are a regular part of our Christmas traditions yet actually tell the opposite story than the one we are meant to proclaim. One of the weeks the featured song was “Deck the Halls.” It is descended from an old Welsh carol that, in a way, pokes fun at people who are sad this time of year. The gist was, “Everything is so beautiful and great this time of year that you have to be a really cold person inside or really sad to not appreciate it.” Now, our English version of the song doesn’t carry this direct antagonism, but it does something almost as difficult–it ignores the possibility of being sad at Christmas. It is perhaps a bit unfair to expect a song about a Christmas party to acknowledge difficult times, but I used the song as an example of the expectation that everyone should act like everything is just fine at Christmas.

The challenge, of course, is that the difficult times don’t pause for the holidays. Wouldn’t it be nice if depression or illness or injury or conflict or stress would just turn off in early-to-mid November and not turn back on until January? But that’s not how life works.

However, if we are doing our job right during the season of Advent, we don’t buy into the notion that everything has to be perfect at Christmas. The traditional themes of the Advent candles–love, joy, peace, and hope–don’t require things to be perfect. Perhaps the most misunderstood theme is joy, which is the most applicable in this situation. Joy is not the same as happiness. It is much deeper. It is born out of an assurance that God has, does, and will provide everything we actually need.

While I would never wish a Christmas illness and death on anyone or any family, I was incredibly blessed to be a part of the service this morning. I am also thankful to have had this experience so early in my career as a pastor. The family truly showed joy in the midst of their tears and sadness. They were incredible examples of people who had complete faith and trust in God even when it would be easy to question God–why her? Why now?

During the Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols, we read “The Mystery of the Incarnation,” which is a collection of verses from John 1 describing Jesus as the Word, life, and light. What stood out for me this year was verse 5:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is what I saw embodied at the funeral in both the family and friends present. It is not easy to lose someone you love at Christmastime, and every year when the decorations go up and the weather starts to change and the happy, peppy commercials begin, they will be reminded of her passing. Yet, the true heart of the Christmas story is that the child who was born in the manger was sent for a purpose. That child was to grow up living a sinless life in the face of all the struggles, temptations, and trials we face as humanity. That baby was born to eventually die and rise again so that the illness we lost this dear member of our church to would not have the final word. Jesus was sent so that all the things we wish we could put on pause at Christmastime would not have the final word.

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