Death at Christmas

Back in 2012, a friend of mine who was a pastor in Hartford, Connecticut, asked me to preach at his church. I was preparing to go on a five-week mission trip to Asia, and this would give his congregation a chance to meet me and perhaps to support the trip. We decided that I would speak on December 16. I planned to talk about Advent.

Then, on December 14, the Sandy Hook shooting took place about a 45-minute drive from my house and from the church where I was going to speak.

The entire nation was traumatized by the event, but I suspect it hit hardest here in Connecticut. It was much more personal—for example, one of my pastor’s close friends in seminary lost his son at the school.

And I had agreed to preach two days later. I’m a college professor, not a pastor. What do you say in the face of that kind of evil?

I don’t remember much of what I preached about, but I do remember what to me was the heart of the message. I didn’t know anyone at Sandy Hook, but I did know people who had died just before Christmas—on December 22, to be precise.

Eddie was my father-in-law, a good and faithful man, whom I loved and respected tremendously. I still miss him. He had cancer, and although the doctors said he had a 50-50 chance to survive, he didn’t respond to treatment. We had been praying for him with our kids, and I truly believed that he would get better. But it just didn’t happen.

My in-laws lived in Michigan. We had been planning to go there from our home in Connecticut for Christmas, but I needed to finish grading for the semester and my children hadn’t quite gotten to their Christmas vacation. A few days before we had planned to leave, we got the call that we needed to get there right away if we were going to make it before Eddie died. As it turned out, the kids were home for a snow day. My wife hurriedly packed while I finished grading, and we began the drive to Michigan that afternoon in the middle of a raging snowstorm. We drove until 1 or 2 in the morning and stopped for the night, then got up the next morning and continued driving.

We arrived in Michigan in the afternoon. Eddie had passed into a coma. My brother-in-law and I stayed in the room with him while my wife and kids went with my mother-in-law to get settled in. When they returned, my brother-in-law and I went to get some food. As I left, I couldn’t bring myself to say “good-bye” to Eddie. I said, “See you later,” knowing I was probably lying to myself and to him.

He died peacefully within the hour.

I remember telling our kids that Papa Eddie had died. Our son was too young to understand, but I remember my 6-year-old daughter bursting into tears when she heard. I don’t know for sure, but I think she was wondering why God didn’t answer her prayers to heal him.

She wasn’t the only one wondering that.

I was worried about what this would do to her faith, but even more I was frustrated and angry at the whole situation. Why did Eddie have to die? And of all the times, why did he have to die just before Christmas? I wondered if there would ever be a Christmas that would not have the shadow of Eddie’s passing looming over it.

I felt like I needed to write to help me process his death. Writing helps me work things through—I felt that if I could find the words to express what was going on, it would help me make sense of it. But I didn’t have a computer with me. I asked the pastor if I could use his, and he agreed, but I never found the time to get to the church to use it. Somehow, I had forgotten that I could still write things with pen and paper, so I was left trying to process it all in my mind.

It turns out that I didn’t need to figure out how to put it into words. The answer was in my favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

This is an ancient hymn drawn from the “O Antiphons” that are sung during the Vespers service from December 17-23, with successive verses sung on each day. The antiphons use titles of the Messiah from the Old Testament and call on Him to come to earth to bring salvation to us. These Messianic titles form an acrostic: If you take the first letter of each and read them in reverse order, it spells out the Latin phrase ero cras, which means “tomorrow I will be there.”

Three of the verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” read:

O come thou Rod of Jesse, free

thine own from Satan’s tyranny.

from depths of Hell Thy people save

and give them victory o’er the grave.

—–

O come thou Key of David, come

and open wide our heavenly home.

make safe the way that leads on high

and close the path to misery.

—–

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

As I thought about the hymn, it helped me to realize that I had the situation exactly backwards. The real story wasn’t that Eddie had died in Advent, but that Christmas is God’s response to death with all its pain, sorrow, and misery.

We get so wrapped up in preparations for Christmas—the decorating and the presents—that we forget that Advent is the time in the church year that we remember the centuries of waiting and longing for Messiah’s first coming, and to remind ourselves that we are now in the centuries of waiting and longing for His return. Even if we get past the commercialism of the holiday, our minds turn to Bethlehem, the birth, and the baby. That is good and important, but we also need to remember why he came. Beyond the manger is the Cross. And behind the Cross is our death, the penalty due for our sin. Jesus came because God was not willing to leave us to our fate, and so ultimately, Christmas is really about God’s response to Death.

And in that response, the Father joins us in mourning the loss of those we love: He understands, because He lost his own son to death as well. And the Son joins us in confronting the inevitability of our own deaths since He faced death himself. To be sure, the Father and Jesus both knew the resurrection would follow, but isn’t that precisely the same hope we have?

Rather than being upset at the timing of Eddie’s death, I could take comfort in the message of Advent even as we held his funeral. I was still angry, but not at God. Instead, I was angry at the reality of death, the wrongness of it, even as I could find peace amid my own tears because Jesus does open wide our heavenly home, He gives us victory o’er the grave, He puts death’s dark shadows to flight.

That is the heart of the message I shared after the indescribable horror of Sandy Hook, and the message I want to share with all those who are facing the loss of loved ones this Christmas: God knows; God understands; God shares in our grief and our suffering. And that is what Advent and Christmas is about.

I have since lost both of my parents and my mother-in-law, and my wife’s family has lost several other members, oddly enough, almost all just before Christmas. Every time I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” I think of them, and of Eddie, and I am reminded why Christmas happened. There are still tears, but I know they are temporary, and that soon, sooner than I expect it, we will be reunited, never to be separated again. And then there will be no more tears, ever.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Resources

Death, Be Not Proud: Living Our Christian Hope in the Ever Present Shadow of Death

  • Timothy D. Padgett
  • BreakPoint
  • September 25, 2018

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