Milner: Caskets Remind Me of Christmas

Imagine, if you would, the last time you stood in front of an open casket. Picture the scene. Perhaps you were crying. Or perhaps you stood silently. Maybe you were overcome with grief or maybe you were uncomfortable because you didn’t know the person well enough to feel the loss of their passing as profoundly as those around you. So you waited what you thought was the appropriate amount of time before moving away and letting someone else take your place. Imagine the atmosphere of that room, the weight that hung in the air, the sound of sobs. Recall if there were any small children there. Children who brought a light of joy while simultaneously bringing forth a pang of sorrow at seeing these who may not fully understand grief yet. Did you long for the days when you were so preciously ignorant of the harsh reality of death?

I write this in early February, in that space between the winter holiday season and the joy of spring. The Christmas decorations have been put away. The jingles have disappeared from the radio. And yet, I’m hearkening back to those “merry” days. I hear Christmas hymns and the crinkle of wrapping paper. I see the stores abuzz and the pews as packed as they’ll be all year. In this, a season of my own grief, I think of Christmas. Why? For the same reason I sit in the pew on Christmas and think of a coffin. Every year, I can’t help but think that were I writing a sermon, I would start by describing a funeral.

Why? Why on this festive and joyous day, would I want to think of something so harsh and terrible? JOY to the world, right? The Sanctuary is aglow with the most dazzling of lights and wreaths and banners, so why mentally transport myself to the bleak moment of sorrow that is a funeral? Because I believe that is where everyone in the Church should be starting mentally. Regularly attending member or reluctant visitor, this imagery will grab the listener’s attention with a familiar sadness. Almost everyone has attended a funeral, and if one hasn’t, he most likely will in his lifetime. This moment in front of an open casket is one all of humanity can identify with.

I myself have been there more times than I like to count. Paternal grandpa at six, grandma at 12, maternal grandma at 17, grandpa at 20. Before I was able to legally drink I had mourned almost an entire generation of my family. Add to that more distant relatives, church family, friends, and the number grows. And now my great grandmother, who I will stand in front of later today. And yet, it’s Christmas in my mind.

See, just about everyone knows Christians believe Jesus is the “Reason for the Season.” But what I think is lost on most unbelievers (and even a decent chunk of Christians) is the reason for Jesus. Why does it matter that this baby was born? So what if He came with angels singing? What is it to me? The reason is simple, yet so profound. The reason for Jesus is that moment in front of a casket. That moment when grief at losing a loved one brings us to our knees or makes us uncomfortable in reminding us of our own mortality.

As I was maturing from childhood into adolescence I began to grasp this cold reality. And it struck me to my core. When I was 12, I was overcome by a sense of sorrow and dread. My mind would drift at random times to the impending doom of knowing everyone I loved would one day die. This truth hung over me, not like a storm cloud, but like a cloud beginning the swirling formation of a tornado, readying itself to rip away from me all I held dear. Perhaps some reading can relate. Perhaps not. But all can acknowledge the familiar sorrow of a funeral. And if not, we can work back from the time of death. We can reflect on the illness beforehand, the cancer, the dementia, the cirrhosis, or Parkinson’s or any number of other terrible diseases that ravage the body. Or perhaps the other calamities of this life. Accidents, hurricanes, flood, famine, war, drought, crime, the list goes on. All the things we daily live in fear of. The reason we keep emergency kits in our cars and homes. The reason “preppers” stockpile food in bunkers. Why the news makes us ill. Why we clutch our children close to us. Why fear and anxiety overwhelm us to the point of paralysis. All these frighten us so because they lead to or point back to the source of our terror: death.

The Reason for the Christmas season? Death. We can only be so jolly because Christ came to die a death to end all death by defeating sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 6:23. Death holds power over us only so long as we are slaves to sin. Sin is not only our deeds but also the disease of our flesh that causes everything to eventually die. Sin alters the chemistry of all matter on this earth to bring about destruction, decay, disease, and ultimately death. But on Calvary the Son of God took on Himself all of it. All our sin and disease. God is just and therefore must repay the sins of man with judgement. But He is also merciful, and thus placed that judgement on Christ, His son.

A God allowing Himself to be tortured and killed is no small thing. And yet on Good Friday, most of the world makes no pause. Though, on Easter and Christmas we flock to churches to sing of joy and triumph. Why? What is there to triumph over? Death. Christ was born (Christmas) to die (Good Friday) and raise again (Easter) to remove sin’s judgement and wrath from us. The joy of Christmas and Easter cannot be fully experienced or known until the reality of death and the necessity of Good Friday in all it’s blood and gore is confronted and realized. What is the Reason for Jesus, and therefore the “reason for the season?” It is the moment I will experience later today as I grieve with my family the loss of someone we love.

And I will indeed grieve. While death is the most natural thing in this sinful world, it also is not natural in that we weren’t created for death. God created us for life with Him and our sinful foolishness fractured that relationship. This is why we weep. Why we morn. Why we are never quite the same after losing one we love. We were created to love God and to love one another and yet death separates us from each other. And so we weep. And yet we hope.” But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.

We grieve a separation and loss but a loss that is temporary. The body that lays before us in the casket was a shell, diseased and broken. Yet the soul, the true person who believed in Christ, lives. We see this in 1 Corinthians as we compare the first Adam (of Eden) to the last Adam (Christ).

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” 1 Corinthians 42-49

We weep because we cannot hold our loved one’s body or see her smile or hear his laugh, but we rejoice in knowing he has gained an inheritance we too should eagerly await. He now truly bear the image of God, and it is more dazzling than any of the lights on Christmas. And we will be reunited with him in our own deaths and on the Last day.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

In our Baptisms we were united to Christ in His death, and thus will be united in His resurrection (see Romans 6:5). This is cause for celebration! This removes part of the solemnity of a funeral. This allows us to of course grieve our loved one but also to rejoice in the truth that they are free from the troubles of this world and are eternally at peace with Christ. And on the last day we shall all be there as God creates a new heaven and a new earth for us to dwell in. This is why my mind today is on Christmas. Because just as on those joyous holidays, I remind myself of the somber reason the joy is even possible, in these lowest moments of sadness, I remember the joy of which we sing. The darkness of these moments is overwhelmed by the marvelous light of Christ’s death and Resurrection. My loved ones and yours who have died in faith, are celebrating in far more joyous fashion than our grandest Christmas festivities. Thanks be to God! Amen.

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
 “O death, where is your victory?

    O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:50-57

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