Christmas by the Graves

Strangely, one of my favorite moments of the Christmas season occurs in a cemetery. My wife’s name is Heather, and her family gathers every year to cover two graves with blankets of pine boughs adorned with Christmas decorations. Prior to going to the graveside, there is a decorating party where the blankets are prepared. The role of the men is to trim the pine branches (and drink beer), and the women and the children slide the tiny boughs into chicken wire, and then add ornaments and ribbon and stars and bells. All of this is done with great care, and no one seems to wonder at the fact that probably no earthly eye will see these blankets once they have been set in place. Perhaps all are aware of a divine Beholder, and of the joyful task of honoring those who have gone before.IMG_0299

The cemetery is in eastern Colorado; it is ill-tended, the ground is brown, and the sky is almost always a sullen gray this time of year. The graves belong to Heather’s Grandfather, who I never met but seem to somehow know from the love that the family has for him, and to her Aunt Marlene, who died at the age of eighteen from a car accident, two months before Heather, whose middle name is Marlene, was born.

Often beauty is about contrasts. The brightness of the grave blankets is certainly in stark contrast to the early winter landscape of eastern Colorado. So too the contrast of the joy of this season with the ache of griefs long-tended. What must Christmas have been like in 1974 for my Mother-in-law, with a two month old baby in her arms, and an infant grief in her heart, mourning the death of her sister while caring for her daughter, a brown-eyed baby girl named Heather? I do not know. What must Christmas be like this year for Heather’s Grandma, who was not well enough to help decorate the blankets this time, or to go to the cemetery, but whose eyes were filled with tears as a couple dozen children and grandchildren and great grandchildren filed into her nursing home room, and sang a chorus of “Silent Night,” her husband’s favorite carol? I do not know. I do not know these griefs, and yet they have been shared with me, so they are, in some measure, mine. One does with grief what one does with beauty: shares it, passes it along. Grief, and beauty too, is shared not so much with words, but with practice and presence. It is the convergence of grief and beauty, shared in the practice and presence in the cemetery, that strikes me every year. The joy which fills my heart is not the piped-in joy we find in Macy’s, but the real joy of the God who reordered disordered reality through his Son, whose beauty has broken into a broken world.

Because Heather’s Grandma was not at the graveside this year, it fell to me, the pastor, to say the customary prayer. I was honored, and nervous, and glad that these faithful Catholics would trust a Protestant. It is an old prayer; its simple words are heavy with the accretions of faithful use, a patina of observed grief, for it has been said falteringly by many families at many graves for many years. It is a Christmas prayer, no matter when it is said, for it trusts the God of grace who has saved the world from within, the God who lived a human life and died a human death, and so can be trusted with the deepest griefs of the human heart. The prayer itself is like the blankets at the cemetery, a punctuation of color within a gray landscape, a note of joy which does not overwhelm the grief of loss but instead harmonizes with it. It is a Roman Catholic prayer, and also a catholic prayer, for who does not wish that certain things were not so, and that certain smiles and voices were still before our eyes and in our ears, rather than held in memory? It is a family prayer, spoken with the confidence that Jesus our brother and Lord is by our side.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

Grandpa George, and Aunt Marlene, this I pray not only for you, but for all who hold you dear, and for all who mourn this Christmas. Lord, we all seek your rest, and hope in your light, and desire your peace.

Merry Christmas to all.

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  1. This is a beautiful tribute, Jeff, to our beautiful family tradition and to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank You dear son-in-law. We are blessed!

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