One of the little secrets that they don’t tell you about in ministry is that this time of the year is filled with death. While the rest of the world is running around singing about this being the most wonderful time of the year, priests are bracing themselves for a slew of funerals. I remember my first year as an ordained person our parish having five or six funerals in December. I mentioned the oddity to my fellow clergy and they gave me a knowing nod. “Oh yeah, December always has lots of deaths,” they told me.
A month of concentrated deaths would be strange in and of itself. But probably what is even more strange is the juxtaposition of death and life in December. You see, every year we celebrate new birth – in fact one of the most important births of our Christian identity. And yet every year, in the face of wondrous new birth is the overshadowing of death. Last year at St. Margaret’s, one of our beloved parishioners died days before Christmas. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we celebrated his death. That afternoon we celebrated Christ’s birth. Life and death seeped into each other, making separating the two realities impossible.
I imagine the reality of death clinging so closely to life is not new to most of you here. We gather this evening every year to honor the reality of celebrating Christmas in the shadow of death. We set time apart to honor how fresh the death of our loved ones is at this time of year – whether they died months or weeks ago, or whether they died thirty years ago. The problem is that no matter when our loved one died, they left a mark on our collective experience of Christmas. Maybe they cooked Christmas dinner every year. Maybe we always visited their house and exchanged presents. Maybe they always told loud, awful jokes or made the holidays a little more bearable. Whatever their legacy on this time of year, there is some part of our heart that is missing without them here. Sure, we make new Christmas memories without them. Eventually, there will be new babies, cousins, and grandchildren who will never know those loved ones we knew. But for us, those loved ones are never far this time of year, however briefly stealing away some of the joy that this time of year can bring.
I think that is what I love about our Old Testament lesson today. Isaiah talks about the coming kingdom of God. Isaiah says, “…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.” There is something about that image of a feast that gives me great comfort this time of year. Maybe the image is comforting because this holiday is often about comfort food – recipes that give us a sense of nostalgia or make us feel safe just through their familiarity. Maybe the image is comforting because we can imagine that raucous table with a large crowd gathered eating, drinking, laughing, and sharing in each other’s joy. Or maybe the image is comforting because we can connect our earthly banquets with the heavenly banquet – imagining those sacred moments and places where we really feel like our loved one’s presence is palpable at our Christmas table – a mystical union between the two feasts.
I cannot promise you that Christmas will be easy this year. In fact, I suspect that those of you whose loved ones passed away years and years ago already know that Christmas will always have a tinge of sadness and loss. Death and new life will always be oddly intermingled this time of year. But I also suspect that may be on purpose. Even though death is inevitable and keeps coming at us, reminding us of our own mortality, we keep celebrating the birth of the Christ Child and the new life and promise of hope he brings. Nothing quite warms the heart like warmth of a swaddled baby. Nothing gives us greater hope and wonder than the miracle of new life. Nothing brings us deeper joy than the innocence and purity of a newborn. We know that any baby can bring that kind of joy. But celebrating the Christ Child is about even more – celebrating the Christ Child is a celebration of all that he will bring – the banquet that his life inaugurates and the feast that he creates for us. Christmas will not be the same without our loved ones. But Christ promises to keep bringing us new life until we can join our loved ones in that heavenly banquet that never ends. Amen.