Christmas for the Dying PDF Print E-mail
Written by Toby Sumpter   
Monday, 28 December 2009 11:59

I don’t know her name, but she is barely alive in the shrunken shell of the body God gave her. She lays under blankets and peers out of heavy eyelids in sunken sockets, belabored coughs slowly scrape her ancient throat. I smile and say hello. Her eyes flutter toward my voice. She leans her head slowly toward me. My one year old daughter is where her eyes rest. She doesn’t saying anything, and I cannot even say that I see a change of expression. But she cannot take her eyes off of my daughter like my daughter cannot take her eyes off of her. Death meet Life. Beginning meet End.

No more let sins or sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found. And I cannot sing these words without choking, without clenching my teeth, without my eyes watering as I look at this woman. How can we sing these words to the dying? How can we say ‘Merry Christmas’ to these deformed, barely breathing corpses? Sure, some are more aware than others. Some smile and tell us stories. Some grimace and complain that we’re singing too loudly or that they don’t know this particular song or they call for the nurses to take them back to their rooms. Others nod off to sleep in their wheelchairs and look up every now and then, startled by our customary, ‘Amen!’ announced to the entire nursing home at the close of each hymn.

My daughters are undone by this. They wave at the residents dutifully, but they are bewildered. They are too young to articulate this overwhelming feeling. But they are restless and threatened by all the old ladies who want to touch them. They all want to touch my children. They want to touch life. They stare at them. They see us coming down the hall, and they stare. And sometimes when I come without them, all the questions are about my children, at least the ones whose memories are still intact. Others will not remember me from week to week, but some of them will remember when I tell them about my son or my daughters. Their eyes will light up, as I tell them about the three trees of life that live in my house.

There’s another man I talk with frequently. Gene’s wife died of brain cancer many years ago. He is estranged from his children and grandchildren. He says they resented the fact that he got remarried. He had a stroke last year, and he lost the feeling in his left arm. I ask him if he will see any of his family for the holidays, and he shakes his head, frowns, and says no. I ask him why they won’t even talk to him for Christmas, and he says he wasn’t a good dad. His tongue plays over the two remaining teeth in his mouth. He shrugs. The college students are getting ready to sing. He says it was hard to watch his wife die. She grew sick and laid in bed all the time. He took care of her. He didn’t mind it because it was his wife, but it was hard to watch her die. Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing. Gene’s eyes question me as our conversation is drowned in the carol. I don’t really have any words for Gene. I think he must see the vacancy in my face.

I cannot think of a better catechism, a catechism of bodies and emotions and song, a weekly liturgy wherein I look death in the eyes, and I sing to death. I sing songs about a little Child to death. A little Child in whom was life, and how this life was the light of men and how He rules the world with His truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. And the question comes, why are we doing this again? Why do we sing to the dying? I have no words for these people. No words will possibly do. And these people don’t really have many words left either. How can we have words when life and death meet? There are no words. We can only sing this part; we cannot say it. I cannot tell Gene that Christ was born for this. But I can sing it. I can barely say ‘Merry Christmas,’ and it could sound like this is some kind of unbelief, some kind of doubt or skepticism.

But I choke on the words because I believe them, and because the dying face in front of me so aches for it to be true. I know that I am saying something heavy, something overwhelming, something like glory. I know that saying them isn’t good enough. I know they must be said, and so we’ll read them out loud from Luke 2. But I don’t know if they’re listening anymore. I just see them staring at my children. Staring at the children, staring at the closest thing they have to the Incarnation, life at the beginning, full, squirming, with smudges of dinner still on their cheeks.

This is Christmas for the dying, but we are all dying. We are all just minutes away from our own wheelchairs and toothless smiles, memories running away like streams after a summer storm, bodies crumpled, eyelids heavy, coughing the last spasms of life out of our lungs. I love singing the carols; I love announcing ‘Christ is Born!’ to the congregation, and hearing them respond, ‘Worship Him!’

I do believe. But this belief aches. It aches and groans because I know that this reality, this sin-raped world is still not all right. We all stare together at that little Child from Bethlehem. We stare, and we want to touch Him. We want Him to heal us, but He shakes His head and says no. And we are interrupted by the song again and again, week after week, year after year. And He calls us to sing to death again. Sing about the Child. Sing to earth. Talk to her, and tell her that the Savior reigns, and to stop growing thorns in His garden. Sing death to death. Sing with aching hearts. Sing while we watch the world die. Sing and stare at the Child. Decorate your trees, fill up the stockings of the dying, and sing until one by one we all nod off in our wheelchairs. And then we will awake, startled by the final ‘Amen’ and we’ll look up and see the Child. And He will stare at each of us, and we will stare at Him. Death meet Life. Beginning meet End. And as we stare, He will touch us and we will be healed, and this ancient will put on infant, and this aged will put on Child.

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