Our Cemetery Memorial Service has become one of my favorite services of the year. That may sound a little strange to you, but what I like about this service is the service’s honesty. This time of year, there is a lot of dishonesty floating around: the notion that buying things can make you happy, the assumption that everyone has abundant food this time of year, and even the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect family, the perfect Christmas, or the perfect life. We see glossy ads, hear songs about loving, joyful Christmases, and watch movies that package Christmas with a pretty bow. Though most of us know in the depths of our hearts that there is no such thing as a perfect Christmas experience, no one wants to talk about that reality. We prefer that everyone stay in their lane, and put on a happy face. Perhaps we have even convinced ourselves that we can “fake it ‘til we make it.” In other words, if we say we are happy and that everything is perfect at Christmas, perhaps we and Christmas will become so.
But instead of buying into the Christmas hype, the Church tells another story today. Simply by gathering us together as mourners, the Church acknowledges the pain and sadness that is often right below the surface at this time of year. While others are decking the halls, rocking around the Christmas Tree, and having a holly, jolly Christmas, the Church invites us in, and encourages us to acknowledge the other part of Christmas – the part that is hard, sad, or empty. We make space for grief, for honoring a loved one, and for acknowledging a sense of absence. I have especially been grateful for that gift this year. About a month ago, our family lost a grandfather. He had lived a full, long life, and we know that he is at peace with the Lord. But his absence is more obvious in the small parts of life. Upon flying out for the funeral, my husband realized this would be the first time his grandfather would not meet him at the airport. As we have prepared for holiday treats, we realized that our annual box of chocolates would not be arriving from him this year. As we send out Christmas cards, I realized I would need one less card this year. And those are just the things related to our family. St. Margaret’s also lost a long-time parishioner this month – one who had been a major presence in our ministry here, whose bed I sat next to as we said prayers in his last days. In addition to the grief of his family, our entire community is mourning the hole that he left. Add into that grief the grief felt all over the world from violence, war, and hunger, and we come here today with much to offer up to God.
Of course, that is what I bring into this place today. And each of you has your own story: of wives, fathers, and daughters lost; of patriarchs in your family and of children whose lives were ended too soon; of lives well-lived and of lives barely lived at all. To each of us, the Church says today that our mourning and our sadness are okay. The Church creates this window of time where we can stop, be still, and know that God is with us. The Church acknowledges the imperfect nature of this holiday, and celebrates anyway.
That is why I love the words we heard from the prophet Isaiah today. The text says, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” What is so inviting about the words from Isaiah today is that they put our experiences in perspective. Yes, our Christmas meals may not be utter perfection. But God is preparing a feast for us that is more perfect than anything we could ever prepare ourselves. Any darkness we feel now will be swallowed up by God. Any tears we shed will be wiped away by our Lord. Any sadness we feel at the dinner table will be eclipsed by the pure and holy joy we will find at God’s feast of rich food and well-aged wines. Our loved ones are already enjoying that feast ahead of us. Our joy is that we too are promised the opportunity to join them at the heavenly banquet when our time comes.
So this Christmas, give yourself permission to experience Christmas imperfectly. Give yourself permission to be both joyful and sad. Give yourself permission to lean into God when you need the strength to carry on. And know, that maybe, just maybe, if you allow yourself to focus on the much grander feast that is to come and that already is for our loved ones, maybe you will find smiling a little easier. Maybe you will find moments of joy that shine light into the darkness. Maybe you will even find the ability to let yourself laugh and sing and to celebrate this imperfect holiday. That is my wish for each of you. That the blessing of this night will create a small, steady flame that warms and encourages you in the days and weeks to come. Amen.