Where Death and Christmas Meet

“Death is the hardest thing about living so far away from our families,” Riley murmured as I fought back collapsing into tears again.

“No,” I replied through gritted teeth, “death is the hardest thing about living, period.”

Because it doesn’t matter if we are in the same room with a loved one or on the other side of the world from them. Death comes, and we are powerless over it.

(This is not the time to quote verses about not mourning like those who have no hope. Jesus cried at the death of His friend Lazarus. There is a place for suffering at His feet, and our Good Shepherd is especially tender in His kindness during these moments.)

I spent yesterday afternoon in that place of grief, my first face-to-face encounter with death. My Grandpaw, a local and personal hero, was rushed to the hospital after a heart attack. We spent hours praying, waiting, raging against the brokenness of the earth as it is now. After my family had all given him our love around his bedside—me via FaceTime—he was wheeled in for emergency open heart surgery. (Four bypasses and two hours later, Jesus gave him the official go-ahead to keep us entertained for a little while longer.)

Pure, sweet, overwhelming relief. Tears of a different kind. The complete emptying of all but Christ.

It’s not always like that. And it wasn’t like that in the span of time between knowing he was on his way to the ER and the instant before the doctor heralded the good news to us. It was chaos. Anger welled up inside me that sin, my own included, could cause this kind of damage to a world that had only known perfection until we unleashed ourselves on it. I was not living the “silent night, holy night.” It was more the “up in her soul there arose such a clatter.”

Holidays are hard on loved ones left behind, and there’s a deep level of meaning available only to those who have suffered. I was oblivious to this fact before yesterday; I have yet to experience it in its awful fullness. It’s the place Death and Christmas meet.

The truth is that death sucks. I know that’s not typical pastor’s wife talk, nor is it overly Christian. But I don’t feel a need to dress up the sentiment right now. It just sucks. That’s the truth.

The truer truth, though, is that death is not forever. It has one moment of glee, and then it loses its fangs like the abominable snow monster at the end of Rudolph. The same baby who filled a manger emptied a grave—and every grave since.

As I tried to prepare myself for the worst yesterday, this lyric ran through my mind over and over again:

Christ is risen from the dead

Trampling over death by death

Come awake, come awake

Come and rise up from the grave

We are all Lazarus.

I used to associate Christmas with birth and Easter with death, but I think that’s a false dichotomy. The birth of Christ speaks to us in the midst of our wrestling with death. And the death of Christ has quite a bit to say as we come alive in Him. There is room here to feast and to fast, to worship and to weep. He is truly here, present, God with us, Emmanuel, in either case. Judas initiated Easter with a kiss of death. Jesus kissed Death goodbye, and my family got a beautiful Christmas gift this year as a result: eyes opened to a God bigger, stronger, and kinder than we’ve known Him yet.

O death, where is your sting?

O hell, where is your victory?

O church, come stand in the light

Our God is not dead

He’s alive, He’s alive

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