Tenebrae at Christmas

December 13, 2018
My family watched the recorded national funeral service for President George H. W. Bush, #41. Towards the ending of the Episcopal service, the congregation was invited to recite the Apostles Creed. We were touched by watching all former presidents, AND their wives, actively participate in this affirmation of their faith. It was, in fact, inspiring.

The current POTUS and FLOTUS, however, stood in silence. So, we started discussing possible reasons for their lack of participation. Some guesses included:

  • Maybe it was a signal that they don’t consider themselves able to affirm the words of that creed.
  • Or, maybe they were both silently repeating the same mantra for the president’s benefit: “Don’t Tweet! Don’t Tweet! Don’t Tweet!”
  • Or, maybe they were just too choked up to participate.

While you might laugh, or roll your eyes, at these responses, the last suggestion got to me. I started to think about the many church members I’ve known who were too choked up to participate in CHRISTMAS SERVICES following funerals for someone they loved. It’s not uncommon. You, your family, your neighbors, and certainly your church might be filled with those who will be fighting back tears during this “most wonderful time of the year.” They might not actively participate during a service, or they might not show up at all!

Somehow, Christmas joy and celebration can make grief even more difficult for many people. Christmas can remind them of who’s missing. It makes them feel out-of-step with everyone else. People like George W. Bush, #43, might be mature in years, but facing Christmas as an orphan for the first time in his life is . . . different. It’s hard.

We ought to provide pastoral care, right? Especially since the normative response to these hurting people—even within church circles—will be to NEVER mention the deceased again or to completely avoid those who are grieving. This is not always done in cruelty. In fact, it’s done out of altruism and the fear that “I’ll make them cry,” or that “I’ll say something dumb.” Ignoring and avoiding the grief of those we care for actually makes them feel like we don’t care at all.

Here are some possible ideas for how we can minister to the grieving during the Christmas season:

  1. Rituals during Christmas services can help. During Advent, recognize the loss. Light some candles. Read the names of those who have died. Pray, by name, for those left behind. Have a special, private service for those who are grieving. Let them hang (to be returned) a special ornament honoring the life of the deceased on a tree of remembrance.
  2. Offer group or individual sessions of counseling and support. Visit in the home of the bereaved with the same offer.
  3. Organize support with cards, meals, chores, and “touches” from church members.
  4. Give the grieving permission to do Christmas differently this year. No celebration. Fine. Big celebration. Fine. Stay home. Fine. Go away. Fine. Attend or miss church services . . . FINE! It’s their call to do what’s best for themselves. Give the bereaved the gift of being selfish in their plans to get through the holidays.
  5. Finally, recognize that taking away the grief is not to be your goal. In fact, that’s impossible. Whether the grief started this month or earlier in the year or even years before—you can’t take it away from someone else still experiencing it. So, give permission for people to grieve. On the other hand, don’t force or expect them to grieve.
    Yes, Christmas is a time of celebrating Emmanuel. But wasn’t the first Christmas also a time of incredible grief?

Matthew 2 (NIV)
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

“God is with us” means that the good Lord understands our sorrow. He is here. He is with us—whether we face the manger scene with laughter or tears.

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