It was such a brief scene as I drove by: a man pulled over on the side of the road, standing on a hillside that was dotted with in-ground gravestones, standing in front of one that was decorated with some red and white flowers – carnations, maybe. I saw him for only a few seconds, and I wondered why he was there, standing on the muddy ground in the rain.
Was that his mother, his wife, his best friend, his brother? Why that moment?
The chiaroscuro of the season always gets to me: life’s way of creating shadows so that the candlelight seems all the more bright; life’s way of creating drama about everyday things, like visiting a cemetery, or pulling over on the side of the road in the rain.
In my first six years of ministry, I conducted a funeral or memorial service every year on December 23rd, or 24th, or 26th. Ruth, age 84. Jean, age 81. Gene, age 78. Faith, age 85. Maybelle, age 79. Bob, age 89. I would often use the texts about Simeon and Anna for those service, old people who died knowing the full consolation of Israel and the promised savior.
But still. Standing at the cemetery on Christmas Eve – it makes your heart break a little, when you get back into your car and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is the first thing that comes on the radio, and then some idiot passes you by with a loud blare of his horn because you’ve slowed down, because you can’t really drive very well with the tears flooding your eyes.
A friend of mine let me know I won’t see her on Christmas Eve; it’s a hard time right now, and she didn’t think everyone around her would appreciate her tears. It is bleak, this midwinter, and for us in Portland is has been gray and sodden. There are other people I won’t see at church on Christmas Eve. Some leave town to be with whatever family is still left. Some will be full with a feast and wine, sleeping through our carols and candlelight. And some will just stay home, because all the songs and all the twinkling trees cannot fill the well of sadness that’s taken squatter’s rights in the heart these days. But there are many I will see, there because they have joy to share, or questions they seek answers for, or because they love to sing in the candlelight, or because their Mom made them come, or because this is their community, and of course they’ll be there on Christmas Eve.
A church I used to be a part of has Easter sunrise services at the cemetery every year. I wonder what it would be like to have a Christmas Eve service at the cemetery – too Dickensian, waiting for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to show up? Too morbid, like the Zombie Nativity that’s made a few headlines? Or too real – the presence of death even as we celebrate birth?
The mind goes to T.S. Eliot, who often gets the last word with me. From “The Journey of the Magi”
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.