Illinois Journal–Merry Christmas

written by 12/22/2002

Tonight I went to Walmart. That’s right, the infamous Walmart of previous entries. Being there made me reflective. I often become reflective, particularly when I’m tired. Yes, I should probably be in bed now, but I wanted to get this written before I forgot it.

There was so much turmoil at Walmart. It was 11:30 p.m., but still there were people hustling and bustling around. Last minute Christmas shopping, I suppose. I was there for a couple grocery items, and I felt oddly immune from the rush. You see, this year has seen very little Christmas purchases in my family. Part of this is a conscious effort to become less materialistic, and part of it is simply a lack of funds. Crystal and I agreed not to purchase anything for each other, at least for the moment. Maybe we will buy just one thing, something for us to share. Maybe we will just go out together and watch The Two Towers.

Besides, I am getting the best present of all. On Monday, after work, we’re packing into the van and heading for Erie. Going home for the holidays. That means a lot to me. I pray that there will be no snafus to prevent us from going. That would be almost unbearable.

And so, as I stood in line, surrounded by the bustle of the crowds, I felt strangely detached. I was at peace. I felt no anxiety about preparing for Christmas. The packing is done. What few presents exist are wrapped. I felt no desperate wantings or wishings. I felt at peace.

And so I began to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to myself. It seemed appropriate. After all, isn’t this supposed to be the time when we particularly remember the awesomeness of the Incarnation? Emmanuel; God with us. The Transcendent One taking on human form, the Creator entering His Creation, the King humbling Himself. I had a thought yesterday about this when I saw a little baby, no more than one or two months old. At one point, my Lord was like that child. And, being a writer, I was struck by this thought. The Eternal Word that spoke Creation into existence had to struggle to learn to speak, just like the rest of us. That was a staggering thought and captured for me, on some level, the magnitude of what Jesus did for me.

But what did He purchase through His simple life and obedient death? Nothing less than victory over death itself.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is my favorite Christmas carol. It captures the melancholy existence that we struggle with on this cursed planet while still tasting of the purity of joy that entered our sphere one quiet night so many years ago. It is a carol that takes seriously the horror of a fallen world while still pointing to true hope.

It was also my grandfather’s favorite carol.

My grandfather died almost six years ago. In February 1997, he fell asleep in the Lord and ascended to glory. Since then, every Christmas, I have cried when I have sung that carol. It reminds me of him so much. And yet, at the same time, it also reminds me of the glorious hope that he professed.

Last year I wrote a story about this. That weekend I laid a copy on his grave. It had been five years since I had been to the gravesite, when I had borne him in his casket to his final resting place.

I returned to this story in November, when little Naomi passed on. This month, it was published in the newsletter that Samaritan Ministries produces.

And so I would like to share this story with you, a reminder of the reasons for Christmas. That, in the middle of the darkness of our sin and pain, a glorious light has dawned.

And tonight, I saw a glimmer of it hanging in the air as I waited in line at Walmart. A taste of purity, of life everlasting.

Veni Emmanuel
Dedicated to my grandfather, Andrew Anderson
Oh God, my Father! It has been five years
Why does it still hurt?
Why does it still hurt?

In stoic silence the oak tree stood its post. For years it had watched over the sleepers in their tombs faithfully. It had been many years since it had been a sapling, and those years had not been easy. During the summer its glorious foliage disguised its age, but the winter had come, stripping it of its leaves and leaving it cold and barren. Now, its twisted, gnarled branches spread out like arthritic limbs raised in benediction over the quiet family beneath it. How quietly they slept! How peacefully!

With staggering footsteps the old woman struggled through the cemetery. The recent snow lay in drifts, too deep for her to navigate. Slowly she picked her way between the tombstones, working her way towards the old oak tree. The bitter wind blew across the cemetery, singing the mournful song of winter. The oak tree watched her halting trek until she finally arrived beneath its spreading limbs. The snow had drifted over the gravestones, half-obscuring them. Slowly, the old woman lowered herself to her knees. Gently, ever so gently, she brushed away the snow from the middle gravestone.

“Merry Christmas, dear. It’s been another year.” She smiled, although her eyes were wet with tears. “The grandchildren visited today. They are all growing up so fast. And the new baby. Oh, you would have loved to see her.” A single tear trickled down her cheek. Words failed her. Wordlessly she reached out her hand and traced his name engraved on the cold granite. “I miss you so much,” she whispered. Her hand passed to the other side of the stone. There her own name was engraved. It seemed so strange to see her name etched in stone, awaiting the day that she, too, would come here to sleep. Her final bed was prepared for her. The tears came freely now.

“I’m so alone. The family does what they can, but then they leave and the house is so empty, so empty. Sometimes I imagine that I hear you in the next room, and I think that maybe—just maybe—you’re there, but you’re not. I’m so alone, so alone, so alone.” Sobs welled up from within her. The uncaring wind blew more strongly now, bringing with it a few flakes of snow. She stared up into the gray threatening sky. “Oh God, is this all that is left to me? The winter of my life spent losing all that I love? Why do I need to suffer like this? Oh why oh why?”

The cold wind bore with it a fragment of song. Somewhere carolers were singing. Their voices were borne to her on the wind. “O come, O come, Emmanuel….” The tears began anew. That was his
favorite song, his special Christmas carol. But as the tears came, the words rolled around in her mind. “O come, thou Dayspring from on high/And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh/Disperse the gloomy clouds
of night/And death’s dark shadow put to flight.”

Desperately she clung to the words. It was so true. Her life felt as if it were overshadowed with the gloomy clouds of an eternal winter, a winter ending only in the sleep of death. Everything around her withered. Friends grew old and passed on. The bonds of love in marriage, shattered by death. Her own body, worn and weary. Her life had entered its winter, and there seemed to be no escape. All that was left to her was an empty wasteland of ice and cold, through which she must wander until her death. It was a harsh pill to swallow, especially on Christmas Day.

The thought percolated through her head. Today was Christmas. She looked around at the gnarled oak, the somber sky, the gravestones. Today was Christmas. And the thought was glorious. It seemed so appropriate that Christmas be in the middle of winter, in the middle of this. In the midst of the death and pain, a glorious hope was given. In the frozen wasteland of life, an oasis was given. Our Lord came down to join us in our pain. He bore our suffering with us. He suffered the loss of friends and family. He wept by the tomb of one beloved to him. He joined us in the sorrow of this life and then He set us free.

She could almost here Him speaking now. “Patience, my child. Patience.” And she knew, as she looked over the empty frozen wastes of the winter of her life, that her precious Lord stood beside her in the snow. Soon, He would call her away to the beautiful Summer Kingdom of His love, and the snow would melt away from her forever. She began to sing quietly to herself. “O come O come, Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel.” She laid a single snowdrop on the grave. “Good night, my love. Sleep tight.” She struggled to her feet. Pausing, she laid her hand on the tree. “Farewell, oak,” she said, “and guard the ones that I love.” Turning, she made her painful way from the cemetery. The oak tree’s branches were lifted, as if to wave good-bye.

Slowly snow drifted from the sky, blanketing the cemetery in white, covering the gravestones. Sleep soundly, dear ones. Sleep until the summer comes forever.

===============

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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