The Christmas Conspiracy

photo credit: patsw

Sometimes Christmas can seem a long way off, even when it’s close. So it was for me when I went to a funeral last Saturday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. The music was beautiful—a requiem setting by Gabriel Fauré. And the church was warmly populated. That happens when you die in your fifties, a season of life when the living still outnumber the dead.

Midway through the service I felt an interior ache grow. Susan had suffered a long illness. News of her death had not surprised me, or anyone else who knew her. But death is death: vacancy, emptiness, negation. The exquisite singing of the boys’ choir doesn’t sweep away the ugly cancer of death. The youthful purity of their voices seemed to draw attention to it by way of contrast.

Death. I think of the twenty children killed in Newtown, Connecticut. In my mind’s eye their caskets are processing down Fifth Avenue to join us. I remember the final days of my mother’s life before she put on the mask of death. “O Rust,” she said to me, “it’s so hard.” Gaping, hungry mouths of freshly dug graves open up in my imagination.

Underneath, or perhaps overtop or within this collage of dark thoughts I’m returning to a summer afternoon in rural Iowa when, at the turning point of an eight-day silent retreat, I walked down a hot, dusty gravel road beside sun-beaten corn fields contemplating the crucifixion of Christ. I saw him hanging on the cross. I heard Christ say in despair, “It is finished.” Then I saw him being swallowed by Satan, and felt Satan’s hot, foul breath.

Death. It’s hateful. It’s fearful. And in that moment at Susan’s funeral, as the floor collapses underneath my feet and I feel as though I was about to be dropped into a dark abyss, death seems all-powerful, the final word. Christmas is just ahead, but the promise of good tidings and joy appears empty, impossible, false.

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