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.
So it seemed for a moment. So it has seemed at other times in my life. But never for long, and never entirely. The small mustard seed of faith says otherwise. “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians. In dying, Christ has destroyed every ruler and power and authority that holds us captive, and that includes the granddaddy of them all, which is death. So confident is his faith that St. Paul taunts death rather than cowering before it: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
Facing the reality of death, I find Christmas reassuring. That’s not just because it’s the moment in which God goes “all in” on the covenant of life that he begins with Abraham and cements on Mount Sinai, but also because it’s very realistic. The very idea of the birth and infancy of Jesus—the very idea of the power of life taking such a form—allows me to affirm the victory over sin and death without requiring me to deny their present and very real power.
God does not call out sin and death to meet them on a grand battlefield. He undertakes a covert action, as it were, entering into human history by stealth as the child of a humble young woman who gives birth in a stable. Undercover, the lord of all foments a conspiracy of life from within the regime of sin and death. God does not follow what might be called the theological Powell doctrine (which, for those who remember the first Iraq war of 1990-91, involves a commitment to overwhelming force). That’s a good thing, because if it were the divine strategy, any realistic person will have to conclude that God has yet to marshal his forces. No, the way of love is different. It conquers from the inside out.
Again, this Christmas strategy allows us to be hopeful without being deluded. Most of us are so thoroughly enmeshed in the regime of sin and death that, if God’s approach involves working from the outside in, we’d have to either pretend otherwise, or conclude that we’re hopeless cases. That’s especially true of death, which will take me as surely as it took Susan. But God saves us from the inside out. My often impoverished, mediocre faith is as small and seemingly ineffectual as a helpless newborn child. It’s no less triumphant or powerful than the Christ-child. It’s no less capable of rousing within me a victorious conspiracy of life.
I left Susan’s funeral with a spirit of hope. She’s dead, yes, but she’s been baptized into the conspiracy of life, the one that was launched in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Heading home, I made my way through the crowds of Christmas shoppers on the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. In the womb of Mary, God himself joins our cause; he leads the conspiracy of life on the frontlines where our mortal flesh falls before the cold, cruel sword of death. The words of one of the hymns we had sung rang in my ears: “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun.”
Have a Merry Christmas.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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