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Advent Reflections: Death at Christmas

Christmas is a terrible time for a loved one to die.

When my husband died 6 days before Christmas, I was given the impossible task of making plans for his burial during what's supposed to be the most festive season of the year. His death left us with broken hearts and lovingly wrapped gifts under the tree. He was a thoughtful gift giver and it was far too painful to open the gifts he'd purchased for us. His brothers kindly dug them out from under our tree after my son went to bed on Christmas Eve and hid them in a closet for me to unwrap when I was ready. It was 6 months before I was ready to open them.

Tomorrow will be the 3rd anniversary of Greg's death and days later we will face our 4th Christmas without him. Each year since he died, I've wrestled with Christmas: how to handle it, what to do with about our traditions, how to carry grief amid the celebration. Each year has surfaced different aspects of missing him and memories of our last days together. This year, as I've opened my Advent devotionals and reread the Christmas story, I've been pondering what Christmas offers to us who grieve.

This world can feel anything but joyful, especially in the wake of death. "Joy to the world" is a hard pill to swallow when standing beside a fresh grave. But sorrow isn't reserved for us who are widowed. We all carry sorrow (and if we don't yet, it's just a matter of time). Cancer diagnoses, car accidents, and lost jobs strike without warning. Houses burn, marriages fall apart and children are diagnosed with life-altering conditions. We scroll through social media and are bombarded with images of povery, war, and genocide. The guilty go free, racism thrives, and gun violence and opioid addiction tear families and communities apart.

What good news does Christmas have for those of us with aching hearts and eyes that see sorrow all around? Is there anything for the broken hearted, abused, or despairing?

In Matthew chapter 4, we read God's striking assessment of humanity:

"The people living in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

a light has dawned.”

Matthew 4:16

In this prophecy quoted from the book of Isaiah, God declares that humanity is living in darkness and in the land of the shadow of death. Do you feel that deep in your soul? I certainly do. Daily I must choose to either face the reality of death and sorrow all around, or numb myself with entertainment, achievement and amusements.

Thousands of years after Matthew quoted Isaiah, we are still living in the shadow of death. Our middle and upperclass lives with access to medicine, good food, clean water, and locking doors can't protect us from death or disease stealing our loved ones away. How much more so is this true for those who lack the protections and provisions we take for granted?

Isaiah's prophetic words came to a people far more aware of their need. They were an oppressed, migrant people with a history of wandering far from home. They were small, looked down upon, and needy. They felt the darkness all around and had no way to escape. When Jesus was born hundreds of years later, he came into their darkness. He was the light that dawned on those "living in the land of the shadow of death".

The important question then, is what did Jesus come to do? And does his birth have anything to offer those of us who are greiving today?

The Jewish people expected a Messiah to come and conquer their enemies. They wanted to dwell securely in their land forever, at peace and with protection. They longed for a ruler to free them from the tyranny of other nations. But Jesus came to free them from the tyranny of their own hearts.

In the very next verse, Matthew describes the heart of Jesus' ministry:

"From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:17

Instead of liberating them from their opressors, Jesus called them to repentance. Before they could experience the fulfillment of their longings - the kingdom of heaven - they needed to recognize the sin in their own hearts and the darkness that they contributed to the world. Jesus spent his ministry calling people away from the greed, power-mongering, selfishness, and self-righteousness that infected their hearts. Jesus pointed them back to the heart of God and toward a hope beyond the grave. But his message wasn't well-received by people looking for solutions to their earthly problems. After a particularly challenging teaching, the majority of people who had been following Jesus left to have their needs met elsewhere.

In the account recorded by John we read, "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:66-67) This was a critical moment of decision for the disciples. Having realized that Jesus wasn't going to provide the comfort and power they craved, would they turn from him like the others?

"Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”"

John 6:68

Peter's words remind me of something Greg often said when asked why he still followed Jesus when God had allowed so much suffering in his life. He would respond, "I'm not a Christian because it makes my life better. I'm a Christian because its true." He'd learned the hard way that God did not promise him an easy, comfortable or long life. But he also knew the only Jesus could offer him unconditional love and presence in this life and the hope of eternal life after death.

When Greg died 6 days before Christmas, everything hinged on one thing: did Jesus truly have the words of eternal life? Never before had I been so grateful that God "became flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14)

Jesus came as a baby, but he is coming back as a king. He died and rose again to make a way for us to be with God forever.

So what does Christmas have for those who are grieving and suffering? Christmas offers hope. Not hope of good gifts, perfect families, or earthly comfort, but hope of life beyond the grave. Christmas points us to the king who was born to die and raised to life. Christmas promises that "light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5)

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