From Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus said: “The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 20:37-40 (NRSV) – December 6, 2012.)
“When those blue snowflakes start falling, that’s when those blue memories start calling,” runs a line from Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas. While most of us are getting ready for happy family reunions during the holidays, and clergy and liturgical ministers of all sorts are preparing for one of the year’s biggest crowds, we may forget that Christmas can be a time of great sadness for many. Mental health professionals note that the Christmas season may be one when many people avoid church. Millions of Americans suffer from the “holiday blues.” I know this all too well because December 21st is the anniversary of my mother’s death.
Her death was not unexpected. I’d been at her bedside in Southern California just days before, but my obligations pastoring a congregation in the Kansas City area at Christmas time meant I couldn’t stay. I had returned to Kansas before she died. It was the custom of my parish to offer Evening Prayer at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday evenings in Advent. At 6:00 p.m. I was vested and ready to lead the service when the phone rang; it was my step-father telling me that Mom had just died. We commiserated for a few minutes and I assured him I would call later in the evening, after the service was over and I had gone home.
I ended the call, took a deep breath, and entered the church; perhaps 20 people were there for the service. I gave the organist the signal and we began. After the opening hymn, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me . . . .” was about as far as I got into the opening sentence of the service before I choked up and could go no further. I swallowed the lump in my throat and explained to the congregation why I was having trouble.
The altar guild director and her husband were in the congregation. In the silence that followed my explanation, they left their pew and came to me. She took my prayer book from me and he took me by the arm and guided me to the back of the church. She began the service again and I sat down in the back pew, blowing my nose and listening to but not really hearing the familiar and comforting words of confession, Phos Hilaron, and psalm.
I don’t remember what the lessons were that evening, but years later on another December 21st I took part as the homilist in an ecumenical “Blue Christmas Service.” Typically offered during these Advent days, and often on the winter solstice, the longest night, these services are for those who have suffered a loss through divorce or the death of a loved one; Blue Christmas Services gives us a chance to say that sadness is OK in this season. It’s not abnormal to shed a tear at Christmas time. As we planned that service, I chose this lesson for the focus of my sermon: “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Our departed loved ones are gone from our lives. Nothing can change that and if we are healthy and realistic, we know that and we work through it. But the days leading up to Christmas can be tough, especially if their loss is recent or, as in my case, the anniversary is near to the holiday. To us they are dead, but our faith teaches us that to God all of them are alive, and the community of faith sustains us in our grief. We are surrounded by people like my altar guild director who took over and led the service when I could not, like her husband who sat with me through the service, like that congregation that continued the service of comforting prayer. We are, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the communion of saints, the living and the dead, including our loved ones, “for to him all of them are alive.” With that assurance, we can share the joy of the holidays.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.