The memory plays in my mind with brilliant clarity. It’s too vivid, really, and I’d much prefer the scene to be a bit more muddled, but I am powerless to change that.
December 21, 2002. Fifteen years ago. Sixteen Christmases ago. Has it been that long?
I was home from college for Christmas break. It was early afternoon and my mother had just stepped into my room to tell me that my grandfather had come out of his surgery just fine. He and my grandmother would be staying in Wisconsin for Christmas, due to the fact that Grandpa just had another stent placed. Thrilled to hear he was doing well, I turned up the volume on the Christmas music so it rang just a bit louder through my room. I readied myself to run some errands with my mother. It would be a good day. No school, Christmas was coming, and the air was cool and crisp. What could be better? Yes, it would be a Merry Christmas.
The phone rang, though I’m not sure I heard it above the crooning of Bing Crosby’s voice. Mom entered again, her face very different than before. Grandpa was gone. The stent blew, there was no way to save him. The conversation I’d had with him the evening before would be the last time I would hear him laugh. In that moment, my world both stopped and spiraled out of control, all in one confusing sweep.
The person dearest to me was gone. In an instant. He would never be coming back.
Soon after, I found myself on the front porch, coatless in the cold and not caring. Sobbing, I screamed—yes, literally screamed—at my neighbors, who no doubt were all warm and cozy inside their homes, preparing for their perfect Christmas.
“You have your Merry Christmas…where’s mine?” I hollered between heaving sobs.
Even in that moment, I knew my grandpa would be greatly disappointed in my behavior. Perhaps that is what finally calmed me down—the thought of doing anything that would keep my sweet grandpa from smiling at me. Never would I want to disappoint Grandpa.
His funeral was held the day after Christmas. Grandpa loved Christmas, so we sang carols that day in celebration of his life. “Away in a Manger” was particularly sweet: “Take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.”
I wasn’t saved when Grandpa died. Oh, I thought I was a Christian, but rest assured, I was not, and I have plenty of shameful fruit to prove it.
Had God chosen to have saved me prior to that moment, I hope I would have honored my grandfather better in the hours after his death. Nevertheless, I was thankful for the opportunity to speak at his funeral and honor him there with fun stories and memories. I am still grateful for the opportunity I had to honor him by helping to care for my grandmother in the days immediately following his death, as she suffered physically and endured an even greater loss than I was experiencing.
Even in my self-deceived, unsaved state, however, once I pushed past the initial shock of the loss, I came to a wonderful realization: my grandfather, if he was saved (and I believe he was), was spending Christmas with his Savior. A Merry Christmas indeed!
All these many years later, now having been mercifully saved by God, when I remember my grandfather and that time of his death, I also ponder the great promise that belongs to all those who believe in Christ.
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation–having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14)
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:1-3)
The Christmas season, once my favorite time of year, is now tainted with bittersweet memories from December 2002. Yet, Christmas is not about this earthly life, or the losses we endure while living it. Christmas is a time to remember the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, who came to save sinners. Christmas is a time to remember a newborn baby laid in a manger, who would one day be a man nailed to a cross. Christmas is a time to look even beyond the cross, to the resurrected Christ, for if there had been no cross and no resurrection, there could be no salvation.
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming… (1 Corinthians 15:12-23)
The celebration of Christ’s first advent is a time to anticipate His promised second advent, when all things will be made right and new.
…then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 1:24-28)
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Revelation 19:11-16)
In this Christmas season and always, may we pray that God would keep our focus fixed on the God-man who humbled Himself to condescend to mankind as a baby and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). As we remember His birth, we remember His atoning, sacrificial death, and His glorious resurrection that promises eternal life to all who are His. We grieve in our earthly bodies, yes. We miss those who have left us. We long to see them again and we cling to the memories God has been gracious to give us. Yet greater than all our earthly sorrow is the life, death, and resurrection of the One who was truly a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). He has overcome death. May we worship this self-sacrificing King.