by Rebecca Hey
As human life begins and ends with woe,
So doth the year with darkness and with storm.
Mute is each sound, and vanish’d each fair form
That wont to cheer us; yet a sacred glow—
A moral beauty,—to which Autumn’s show,
Or Spring’s sweet blandishments, or Summer’s bloom,
Are but vain pageants,—mitigate the gloom,
What time December’s angry tempests blow.
‘Twas when the “Earth had doff’d her gaudy trim,
As if in awe,” that she received her Lord;
And angels jubilant attuned the hymn
Which the church echoes still in sweet accord,
And ever shall, while Time his course doth fill,
‘Glory to God on high! on earth, peace and good will!’
This Christmas was different, it wasn’t nostalgic to the same degree as years past, it was, for me a more visceral sense of loss. I felt the pull of loved ones who have passed more strongly this year. Is Christmas a story of hope and birth or is it a story of loss and death? I think that question is at the central core of why Christmas is unique for many of us, regardless of our spirituality or religion. Christmas is the backdrop to which so many of our memories are set, the props, the setting for joy and sadness that accumulate across our years. I went to church on Christmas Eve and tears kept welling in my eyes, memories of my Mother and I sitting together, listening to Silent Night, by candle light, her hand finding my hand, as a little boy and the last Christmas we shared, exactly the same.
Christmas is the story of love and love bridges both life and death. We can’t have endings without beginnings and we can’t have beginnings without endings. The Vietnamese writer and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
There is an intimate connection between birth and death. Without the one, we cannot have the other. As it says in the gospel, unless the seed dies, it could never bear fruit.
We have a tendency to think of death as something very negative, dark, and painful. But it’s not like that. Death is essential to making life possib.e Death is transformation. Death is continuation. When we die, something else is born, even if it takes time to reveal itself or for us to be able to recognize it. There may be some pain at the moment of dying, just as there is pain at the moment of birth, or when the first bud bursts through the bark of a tree in spring. But once we know that death is not possible without the birth of something else, we are able to bear the pain. We need to look deeply to recognize the new that manifests when something else dies.
Thich Nhat Hanh
So is Christmas a birth story, a life story, a death story? For me, it’s all of them. The service ended and my friends and I wandered a bit about the church, looking at the collection of Christmas art and creche scenes from all over the world, when beautiful bells began ringing a Christmas tune in tinkly wonder. It was the creche pictured above, cleverly wired so that the bells suspended in the outlines of the stable rafters had little actuated hammers tuned to play based on some brilliant computer setup hidden away with wiring that was invisible to the initial glance. It was a like magic. It was a pronouncement that look at the world again, more closely, there is still wonder to behold and beauty to witness, beauty in birth, beauty in death, honor to all our loved ones that aren’t present to hear it with us, listen even more closely and remember.
Journey of the Magi
by T. S. Eliot
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”