When we were visiting our daughter in western Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, a friend and neighbor was rushed to the hospital. We visited him in the hospital on Thanksgiving Day.
A week later he died in the hospital. His wife asked me to officiate at his funeral. So we found ourselves flying back to Pittsburgh two weeks before Christmas.
Christmas is always a difficult time for those who have lost loved ones. That is why we have a Blue Christmas Service at our church. It is especially difficult when the death and funeral occur near the holidays.
I always remember that my father died the week before Thanksgiving, even though it happened thirty years ago. The following spring my grandfather’s funeral was held on Good Friday. Those holidays always bring back these memories.
When a death happens near the holidays, it forever changes the way we celebrate the holiday. Not necessarily in a bad way. It enriches the experience of the holiday. This is especially true of Christian holidays.
There is a painting by William Holman Hunt entitled Shadow of Death. He painted it a hundred and fifty years ago during a trip to the Holy Land. It shows Jesus in his twenties, working as a carpenter in Nazareth. He is stretching his arms after a hard day’s work. He almost seems to be dancing and smiling. You can almost hear him say, “It is finished.”
The setting sun casts a shadow of Christ’s outstretched arms onto the wall of the carpenter’s shop. His shadow falls on a wooden tool rack mounted on the wall and prefigures his crucifixion. His mother Mary is on her knees before a chest in which she has kept the gifts given to her Son by the Magi. She glances up to see the shadow of the cross on the wall.
The painting incorporates elements of the birth, life and death of Christ. It proclaims that death is always with us, even at moments of emotional fulfillment and joy. That is what the funeral of our friend reminded us.
He was a Vietnam vet who knew war and death. He was a medic who was awarded the Purple Heart. He also knew birth and life. He was a surrogate grandfather to my own grandson Elijah, who lives across the street. He loved him as his own. He kept a photo of him by his bed in the hospital.
Death does not take a holiday. Even at Christmastime people we love die. The longer one lives, the more holidays bear the shadow of death. But we can still dance. That is because the birth and death of Christ has taken away the sting of death. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”