It always happens at this time of year: I feel a disconnect between where I am, emotionally and spiritually, and where the world around me is.
Our church calendar is very clear about it: it’s not Christmas yet. No, as we are approaching the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ (as the popular song says), we Christians are encouraged to think about and meditate on – endings. It’s the end of the church year, and this means we are also encouraged to meditate on the ultimate ending we as humans, we as living and breathing beings experience: death.
In Germany, the very last Sunday of the church year is observed as ‘Eternity Sunday’, although another term is used much more frequently: ‘Totensonntag’, or ‘Sunday of the Dead’. And this ‘Day of the Dead’ does not have the gaiety and those elements we may think of as macabre of the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’, but is a very somber and sad day. The weather often helps with that: in Germany, November days tend to be dreary and grey.
When I was a pastor in residency back in Germany, the church I served was a church in the countryside – a village church – surrounded by a graveyard. And I remember how eerie it felt to step out of the church after the worship service on Eternity Sunday, to enter the graveyard with the congregation as a depressing November mist surrounded us, and to read the names of those who passed away over the course of the last year. And after every name, the church bell would ring out with a hollow sound. And because congregations tend to be large in Germany, there were scores of names that were read. It took a while. Let me tell you, there’s no better way to meditate on death and on our finality.
For everything, there is a season, we read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: a time to be born, and a time to die. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. Countless generations before us have embraced these seasons and honored them. Until a couple of generations ago, grieving and crying was given its proper time and space.
When I was a child, people who lost someone close would wear black for a year, as a sign of their grief – and as a signal to the outside world, ‘Please be gentle with me – I am raw, I am sad, I am bereft, I am getting used to a life without my husband, my mother, my brother, my child.’ That started to change as I grew up. When my grandfather died, my grandmother and my mom debated if six months of wearing black would be enough. They decided in favor of it. And today many folks don’t even wear black at a funeral anymore.
As a society, we have robbed ourselves of an important season: the time to mourn, and the time to weep, to cry. A time to be honest with ourselves and with others about what we feel like when we lose someone. A time to acknowledge that death destroys.
Now interestingly enough, it’s not only society at large that seems to try to avoid death, the reflection on death, and grief – something we experience right now and every year when Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving, and for some even earlier. There are those who believe in God, there are churches who treat death as something that can be taken lightly, for isn’t the one who dies resurrected to a life eternal in God? Isn’t that a good thing?
And this resentment is often echoed in sayings like, ‘We know it’s the best for him or her, now they are with God.’ And not many people want a funeral or a memorial service for their dearly departed anymore – well, at least they don’t want to call it that – no, today folks prefer a ‘celebration of life’. Even as Christians, we tend to shun the grim reality of death, death as a deeply existential experience – as if grief were a sign of a weak faith in God.
But even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died. And Martin Luther, who had a confident faith in God’s grace and the resurrection, mourned deeply when his daughter Magdalena died at the age of 12. Despite our hope in eternal life, death is still a curse, as the Bible says, death is the enemy of life, the enemy of God. Yes, to us, death sometimes may seem as a blessing, when we experience how someone suffers so much here on earth. But it still leaves us bereft, it leaves a wound, it hurts. And even if this wound closes after a while, there will always be a scar.
Today is a day to acknowledge all that, to give it room. Today is the day to be sad, or even angry, as we grieve those close to us whom we lost. Today is the day to remember those whom we lost here in our community over the course of the last year, members and friends: Gary Hunt, and, very recently, Inge Bultmann and Norma Hahn. Today is the day to remember also all those in this world who die in this country and in this world, often under what seems like senseless circumstances: gun violence, war and genocide, and natural disasters like the Camp Fire.
This is a time to deal with the fact that all life is fragile, and that we all are terminal. Because for everything, there is a season, and, according to the church calendar, this season is now.
This is the end. But, as we all know, there is no end without a new beginning.
Next Sunday, we celebrate the beginning of a new church year with the season of Advent – a tender season, a season pregnant with hope and expectation as, each Sunday, we light one more candle in the darkness. Advent is a time of transition – a transition from death, mourning and weeping – to the birth of a child in a stable, a brand new life we can rejoice about.
After death, there always is life – this is what we believe. Death, as destructive and horrible as it might be, does not have the last word.
The world around me may skip that whole season that deals with endings and death and jump right to joy and jolliness – but I wouldn’t want to miss it. For me, seasons like this one and the Advent season for that matter make Christmas so much more meaningful.
For everything, there is a season – and for every season, there is a reason. But in all seasons of our lives, we can be confident that God is with us and enfolds us, and that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers nor anything nor anybody in this world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Picture by Jeremy Wong on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German