In the morning I stood beside the bed of a friend in a hospice facility who is preparing to make her ascent. I prayed for her and read scripture to her and tried to say something that felt like love and hope and faith.
That afternoon I read a health update from a friend. The experimental treatments have come to an end and the cancer that has invaded her body has not responded. She is going home with her family to wait and weep and love and prepare.
Sitting in my office, reflecting on these two lives, these two beautiful people, it occurs to me that they are walking out a reverse Advent journey.
One friend has lived out a few more than the 70 years the psalmist says we get and the other has experienced a mere fraction, much closer to the age Jesus was when, as Isaiah describes it, “his life was cut short in midstream.” Soon, both will take off their mortal robes and put on immortality. They will walk from knowing and into the Mystery.
Jesus left splendor to enter a stable of sorts and my friends will leave a messy world to discover the glory we can’t even imagine.
But I’m achingly aware of the difference.
Jesus enters the story with a substantial awareness of how things really are – he was, after all, the Word who was with God from the beginning. My friends will have to make their ascent having only known this life – fully cognizant of what they leave behind: a cup of good coffee, the feel of a warm spring breeze across their skin and sun on their face, the smell of old books in the library, the grip of a tiny hand in their own, the sound of a three year old’s giggle.
We may call this world fallen, but in our hearts we know there is far too much of heaven about it to simply walk out the door and leave it all behind.
There is a story that isn’t in the Gospels that fascinates me. We have to engage our imaginations to reconstruct what we’re not told. But there was a day when Jesus helped his mother prepare father Joseph’s body for burial. And I wonder, was he tempted to whisper into an ear, “Poppa, I say to you, arise!” As he washed Joseph’s body, did he feel the power in his hands that could end his mother’s grief and turn her tears into shouts of joy? As he walked away from the burial place with his family, did his heart break for them over their loss while he felt the internal tension of knowing he would one day make the dead rise from their graves but not Joseph, not that day? Did he go to bed crying for his family’s loss and for not acting to bring Joseph back and heal all their hearts?
I’m thinking of another friend whose church told him he could not mourn the dead because that’s what pagans do. I make my confession to his church then that I must be a pagan because I mourn the loss of those who have gone ahead, whose hands I cannot hold, whose voices become harder and harder to remember, whose thoughts I can no longer share, whose accomplishments I can no longer celebrate.
The apostle Paul asks death a question, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” And I would be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that my soul feels stung and swollen right now. It may be the absence of faith, perhaps, but I’m very certain it is the presence of love. Jesus stood outside of Lazarus’ tomb and wept and he knew what happened next.
I don’t believe their lights are extinguished, I believe with all my heart that both of these women will continue to shine like stars in a dark universe, but I am aware that they will ascend to another room so it will seem to me as if there light has gone. And this makes me sad and angry and depressed and resentful.
Because of my vocation I have been with many friends and even some strangers at their moment of death. Some of those moments have been frightening as people seemed terrified to lose their grip on this life. Some of those moments have been peaceful as it seemed like what ever the person had been waiting for had finally arrived and they just left the room. Some have been hard as it felt like friends were being ripped away from us – Jim, Faye, Elinore, Rob.
Sometimes death feels like liberation but most times, for me, it’s felt like a curse.
Here on this night before Christmas these are the thoughts that are dominating my contemplation. We’re all on a reverse Advent journey, heading to something we’ve never experienced but into the love of God. Away from the familiar and into the Mystery. Out of this present darkness and into the Light.
I am not eager to see my friends leave.
I hate the future in this life that is being taken from them.
I hate the future in this life without them.
I hate death.
The Psalmist assures us that “The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die.” I find more comfort in this than in the promises of heaven when I die because I can relate to a God who empathizes more than I can the abstract idea of something impossible to even imagine. Someplace I’ve never been before. And I’m embarrassed by the dime store prophets who offer specific descriptions of a heaven they assure us they’ve visited but comforted by the words of Jesus who offers very little specifics and offers himself instead, “today, you’ll be with me.”
O empathizing God
Be with my friends in this season of Ascent
Draw near to them and theirs
Give them peace, give them a taste of glory coming,
Make gentle their transition from this life into the life that’s coming
And have mercy on us who are left behind
Do not heal the wound and cheapen our loss but bear with us
The wounds of love their ascent will leave behind.
O empathizing One, thank you for being a God who weeps
Receive our tears, our grief, our pain
And make of them what you will.