Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Away in a Casket

Here it is just a few days till Christmas—the story of the most important birth in history—and I’m up to neck in death. This is not unusual. As often as not I spend December doing funerals. I've done two already and another member of our church died yesterday. Away in a manger—yes. Away in a casket—that too.

At least for me death and Christmas are irrevocably linked. My father died the day after Christmas in 1987; my mother died on Christmas Eve 2009; and I do as many funerals in December as I do any other month of the year. Death and Christmas are linked together for me. Do I like it? Not particularly. But that is my reality.

Actually, it’s the reality of all those who love and follow Christ. Even though Christmas is a birth story, Jesus was born to die. Had it not been for the cross and the resurrection, we’d know nothing more of Jesus’ birth than we know of any other child born to peasants in first-century Israel. It was the cross and resurrection that caused Matthew and Luke to learn more about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Aside from Mary, Joseph, and a handful of no-account shepherds, no one was the wiser as to Jesus’ identity at the first Christmas. Can’t you hear the conversation in the local beauty parlor a few days later? “I heard there was some commotion around your place the other night, Martha?” And Martha says, “Yes, some poor young couple, pilgrims from Nazareth, used our stable for a maternity ward. I think they had a little boy. But enough of that; what’s the latest with your kids?” No one in Bethlehem had a clue as the identity of that baby born in the stable.

But that’s okay. Jesus wasn’t born to create a holiday centuries later; Jesus was born to die. The birth was important—the eternal Word had to become flesh, had to live life as a man, had to be tempted in the same ways we are and yet never sin, had to reveal God to us in his teachings and his miracles. And when the time was right, Jesus had to die for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus did that. And on the third day he rose from the dead victorious over sin and death and the grave. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting? But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57). Away in a manger—a peaceful lullaby. Away in a casket—there’s peace to be found there too.

I hope that’s encouraging to you if you’re dealing with death and grief this time of year. Grieving is usually more painful at Christmas—the empty chair at the Christmas table, one less stocking on the fireplace, deep sadness in what is supposed to be a happy time, and uncertainty how to celebrate the season or whether to celebrate it at all. When “Away in a Manger” becomes “Away in a Casket” what do we do then?

Let me tell you a story. It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. I read it in Walter Wangerin’s book, The Manger Is Empty. Walter is a Lutheran pastor and writer. The story grew out of his pastorate of the Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, and involves his daughter Mary, Miz Odessa Williams, and a funeral on Christmas Eve.

On the Sunday night before Christmas the people of the church attended to their annual custom of Christmas caroling in their neighborhood and local hospital. Once in the hospital, a group of children, including Mary, went with Wangarin and found their way to the room of one of their church members, Miz Odessa Williams, an old black lady on her deathbed. She was very weak, but as the children lifted their voices to sing the birth of Jesus, Miz Williams was stirred. Lying on her back, she began to direct the music. She lifted her thin and trembling arm and began to mark the beat with precision. Her thin face frowned with a painful pleasure as she found herself lost in the music.

The children sang for her, yet she caught them—drawing them near to her, their eyes fixed on old Miz Williams. After they finished, Miz Williams drew them still closer and said to them in a weak and husky voice: "Oh children, you my choir. Oh choir, you my children for sure, every las' one of you. And listen me," she said, catching all of them one by one and eye to eye. "Ain' no one stand in front of you, for goodness, no! You the bes', babies, you the final bes'."

The children were fascinated, listening to her as though she spoke with the voice of God. Miz Williams went on: "Now listen me, when you sing, no matter where you be, I be there with ya. And how can I say such a mackulous thing?" She lowered her voice, drooped her eyelids a bit and said, "Why 'cause we be in Jesus. Babies, babies, we be in Jesus, old ones, young ones, us and you together. Jesus keep us in his bosom, and Jesus, no, he don't never let us go. Never. Never. Not ever."

So spoke Odessa in the thin, long light, so spoke Odessa Williams with such love and conviction that the children wept and were not ashamed. The lady won Mary in those moments.

But the tears Mary shed that night were of a different type than the ones she shed on Christmas Eve. For three days before Christmas, Odessa Williams died. It was a long tome coming, but quick when it finally came. And because of the way the days fell, the funeral was set for Christmas Eve morning.

Wangarin broke the news to his family rather hastily over lunch. Mary barely ceased eating. But as Wangarin was leaving for the office, Mary stopped him at the door and said, "I want to go to the funeral." Wangarin nodded in agreement and left.

Christmas Eve morning came. The casket containing Odessa's body was in the church, and people came and viewed the body before the service. At about ten minutes till service time, Mary came in. Wangarin met her at the door. "Dad," she said, "it's snowing." It was. A light powder was falling. "Dad," she said in a more grievous voice, "it's snowing."

"I know, Mary. Are you coming in? It's about time to start."

Mary walked with Wangarin up to the casket and looked at Odessa's face. She reached out and touched Odessa's long fingers. "Oh no," she whispered. She touched them again – this time with her cheek. Then she stood straight up and said, "Oh no, Dad, Miz Williams is so cold. And it's snowing outside – it's snowing in Miz Willliams' grave." And Mary plunged her head into her Daddy's chest and wept. "Dad," she sobbed, "Dad, Dad, it's Christmas Eve."

Wangarin had no answers for her, so Mary wept and went to take a seat. What could Wangarin say to those tears? His Mary had met death on what was supposed to be a happy day. So the funeral and the graveside and a silent, broken Mary.

But it was Christmas Eve, and that night was the children's program at church. Mary was to portray Mary, the mother of Jesus. Wangarin told her she didn't have to if she didn't feel like it. But Mary said she would.

Wangarin watched Mary as she played her part. She was quiet and in grief. So the program unfolded. The angels came, giggled, and left. Mary and Joseph sat at the manger. Mary looked down at the manger and began to frown. She looked as if she was about to burst into tears, but she didn't. She just frowned hard, looking at the doll in the manger. And then quietly, suddenly, Mary reached for the doll and began to play a part not written in the script. She took the doll, walked down the aisle, and out of the sanctuary. Nobody knew quite what to do. People sat in stunned silence. But in a moment, Mary emerged without the doll. She knelt by the crib, her face now radiant and full of adoration. The angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest." And the pageant was over.

Wangarin drove the family home that snowy night wondering what Mary had learned. "Dad," said Mary, "Jesus wasn't in that manger. It was a doll." Wangarin winced at the loss of his daughter's innocence. But Mary went on: "Dad, Jesus doesn't have to be in the manger, does He? He goes back and forth, doesn't He? He came from heaven and was borned here. But when He was done, He went back to heaven again. And because He came and went He can be coming and going all the time, can't He?"

"Right," whispered Wangarin.

"The manger is empty," Mary said. "And Dad, Miz Williams' box is empty too. We don't have to worry about the snow. It's only a doll in her box. It's like a big doll, Dad, and we put it away today. And if Jesus can cross, if Jesus can go across, then Miz Williams, she crossed the same way too with Jesus."

Choking back the tears, Wangerin recalled Miz Williams words to the children at the nursing home: "Babies, we be in Jesus, old ones, young ones, us and you together. Jesus keep us in His bosom, and Jesus, He don't never let us go. Never, never, not ever."

Not in life. Not in death. Not in grief. Not ever.

The Advent hymn-writer caught a glimpse of the very same hope:

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

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