For the first time in recent memory, this Christmas’ extended family gift exchange was not a game. Gathered around the fireplace at my aunt’s house, each of her siblings chose a number to determine their turn. Then, in order, each sibling carefully took one of their mother’s precious keepsakes as their own. In a complex atmosphere of bittersweet memories, one person picked the photo of Grandma with her sisters; another selected the Christmas wreath that had hung on her door; and on it went… until nothing was left.
Just five days prior, gathered around a casket in parish pews, we prayed the Rosary in a way we never had before. Grandma’s eldest daughter, in a moment of remembrance after prayer, noted, “My mother’s favorite mystery of the Rosary was the Nativity.” Many times over the next twenty-four hours, we were reminded that Grandma prayed 15 decades of the Rosary daily, entrusting all of us to Jesus through his Heavenly Mother, but also entrusting herself.
The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death. In the ancient litany of the saints, for instance, she has us pray: “From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord”; to ask the Mother of God to intercede for us “at the hour of our death” in the Hail Mary; and to entrust ourselves to St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 1014)
Because of the loss of my grandmother, I re-discovered this Christmas. I noted how the Church celebrates—yes, celebrates—St. Stephen’s bloody martyrdom on December 26. On December 27, we celebrate the death of Saint John the Evangelist, who gave up each day of his life completely to God and died a natural death. Then, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 (those innocent children whom Herod slaughtered in a paranoid rush to protect his sovereignty from a baby King). Thus, we begin the Christmas season by celebrating three martyrdoms: chosen martyrdom by blood, chosen martyrdom of daily life, and unchosen martyrdom of innocent blood.
It is a strange wonder to think that our religion celebrates death at a time like Christmas. Yet, it is not strange when I think back to the end of my grandmother’s Rosary service. Having completed the final prayer, my uncle Deacon John reflected, “We will remember always that now, whenever we pray the Rosary, we pray it along with her.” Jesus’ birthday made possible his self-gift on the Cross, transforming the curse of death into a gift: the hope of abundant and everlasting life.
If you have experienced a loved one’s death recently, I encourage you to take hope. When Jesus explained to his disciples what it takes to enter Heaven, they looked at him in astonishment, asking, “Then, who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
When we see a body lying in a casket, it seems impossible for that person to do anything more. Death appears to be final. Yet, Christians dare to hope in knowing that God—who created that person, who knows all the hidden sufferings and trials of his or her life, and who loves perfectly—is Judge. Therefore, we must pray often in hope and trust, commending his or her soul to God who became Love Incarnate, whose ways and wisdom are far beyond our weak ways and short-sighted wisdom.
God became a human because he could not bear the thought of living without each one of us in Eternity. He was born to show us his love; penultimately expressed by his death and resurrection. That is the gift of Christmas.
“There is no point in being a Christian unless we regard death as God’s greatest gift to us.” – Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (1948—2013)
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