God is in the MangerI went to a funeral this morning. A wonderful lady in my ward has died, in considerable agony it seems; she was too young to suffer and die like this.

I didn’t know her well, but the reason I got to know her at all was that she had once approached our Primary president and asked where she could be used. She was so eager to help with the kids that she volunteered herself when other people were bowing out. In our Primary we’re perpetually short of teachers, so having someone proffer herself simply because she wanted to be there, wanted to help, meant a great deal.

When someone dies during the Christmas holidays it can feel like a cruel joke, like God is toying with us. What is supposed to be a hopeful and joyous time turns sinister. This time last year when my mom was in the hospital, her prognosis rapidly deteriorating, “Christmas spirit” was rather thin on the ground.

And yet in death, there is Christ. I saw Christ in the nurses who bathed and cared for my mother, and especially in the hospice nurse whose matter-of-fact compassion guided us through the story’s inevitable conclusion.

So while I had little or no “Christmas spirit” last year, I had an Advent spirit. I was waiting, waiting, waiting for death and rebirth; I was keenly aware of God’s Emmanuel presence even though I could not pray. I saw the veil between heaven and earth grow thinner as my mother’s body and soul prepared for the next, last thing.

Unlike a blithe Christmas spirit, an Advent spirit does not avoid death and sadness. It embraces death head on. This past weekend in a discussion about Matthew 2:1-12, Eric Elnes reminded me that myrrh, one of the three gifts the magi brought to the Christ child, was traditionally used to embalm the dead.

Seen through the lens of a Christmas spirit, this is an odd choice for a baby gift: you bring a onesie, a rattle, and a . . . casket?

But seen through the lens of an Advent spirit, the gift makes perfect sense. It was a sign that Christ would be Lord over everything, even unto death. The order of things was about to undergo a seismic shift.

I am reminded of a story Dietrich Bonhoeffer told in a sermon in 1933. There had been a mining disaster in the news, with people waiting anxiously to see if trapped miners would be rescued.

You know what a mine disaster is. In recent weeks we have had to read about one in the newspapers.

The moment even the most courageous miner has dreaded his whole life long is here. It is no use running into the walls; the silence all around him remains. He knows people are crowding together on the surface; but the way out for him is blocked. He knows the people up there are working feverishly to reach the miners who are buried alive. Perhaps someone will be rescued, but here in the last shaft? An agonizing period of waiting and dying is all that remains.

But suddenly a noise that sounds like tapping and breaking in the rock can be heard. Unexpectedly, voices cry out, “Where are you, help is on the way!” Then the disheartened miner picks himself up, his heart leaps, he shouts, “Here I am, come on through and help me! I’ll hold out until you come! Just come soon!” A final, desperate hammer blow to his ear, now the rescue is near, just one more step and he is free.

We have spoken of Advent itself. That is how it is with the coming of Christ: “Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

We are the miners, trapped in the specter of certain death; we are waiting for rescue. Advent is the reminder that even when death overtakes us there is hope, there is life. As Bonhoeffer put it, “In these weeks of Advent while we are waiting for Christmas, he calls to us that he is coming and that he will rescue us from the prison of our existence, from fear, guilt, and loneliness.”

I will look up and raise my head.

7 Comments

  1. Jana – I needed this today. The anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting is days away. A member of my church is an aunt of the one the children. She reminded us on Sunday of the event, and the families hope that everyone would perform a service to someone, and not let evil win. It’s ironic, as you point out, death and Advent.

    I always turn my car radio to the Catholic Station in December, the hymns, the readings, the prayers wrap my holidays in hope. Blessed be Advent.

  2. Jana Riess

    Oh, Carrie. I have not even been able to think about Sandy Hook. All those families, all that loss. God’s spirit and peace be with them. I love the idea of combating the grief by paying kindness forward in acts of service.

  3. This is just what I needed to read today. Approaching the first Christmas without a parent … a little hard getting out of bed lately … then this morning I heard an NPR segment about parents of a little girl who died in Sandy Hook, and the nonprofit they’ve founded as a result, and the dad said, “You need a reason to get out of bed every morning.”

    My people don’t really do Advent, but this year I have felt some strange hunger for it, almost an insistence on sitting with it daily, this season I don’t know much about. And here you have articulated part of the reason for me: “An Advent spirit does not avoid death and sadness. It embraces death head on.” Thank you for the reminder that these seismic shifts in our lives this year will be set aright by that other, larger one that’s both already-happened and yet-to-come.

  4. Thanks so much for this thoughtful piece. Christmas, and the “holidays,” are NOT a giddy time of laughter and good cheer for everyone. However, by focusing on the ultimate mission of the Christ-child it can be a time of hope and compassion. Perhaps if we look outward, with His eyes, we will notice some tender bit of Christ-like service we can give this Christmas. Thank you again.

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