There is a special sadness upon entering a home where there has been a death and seeing a Christmas tree and under it perhaps presents for the deceased. The contrast between the joys of the season and the grief of loss is stark.
If there is to be a funeral at the church during Advent or the Christmas season, there is strength in leaving the worship space as it is for ongoing worship of God. To do so communicates that life and death are both part of an ongoing flow. In some traditions, the color of the paraments for services of death and resurrection is always changed to white, regardless of the season, a practice that in many Western cultures represents confidence in the resurrection. I do not argue with that custom. Another view is that the use of the seasonal color (purple or blue during Advent) signals that in the midst of death as in the midst of life, the church tells the saving story of Jesus. It is the same story that it was before the death occurred! You might discuss these options as you do service planning with the family.
Coming into a sanctuary with the season’s signs around can make a difficult time even more difficult. Pastors often hear: “Jean just loved Christmas! It will be so hard to see all the reminders of Advent when I know she won’t be here to enjoy them.” Part of the healing can come in this setting in which loss is magnified. It is not made any easier because of its “theological rightness.”
A homily during a service of death and resurrection might note the disparity between the season’s brightness and the occasion’s shadows. “Few of us would expect to be here on these days just following Christmas, a time of loss in the midst of a time of gifts, a place of loneliness in the midst of a place of joy, a people in change in the midst of a people of tradition. Yet, being here at this time and place and with these people tells again about Bethlehem, a place of birth, a time of new beginning, a people of hope. Maybe this is a good time to be here, reminded who we are simply by being where we are.”
The seasonal texts can help focus the homily. John 7:25-31 offers a perspective that there are times when we wonder about the readiness or ability of Jesus to be the Messiah, to be God’s anointed. Some of the crowd in this text certainly wondered about it. But our Lord says that folks should remember that the One who sent him is true. And it is a truth that we can trust, even in the center of life’s uncertainties. John 1:1-14 speaks of the Word living among us, a comfort indeed when we feel so very alone. Sometimes a death comes as relief, particularly when a loved one has suffered over a long period. Isaiah 55:1 is an invitation from God for the thirsty to come and drink of good water. The dying days of a loved one is indeed like a parched life, longing to be refreshed. In death, God has invited the loved one to drink fully and freely. Matthew 2:13-23’s shocking version shows that death may think it can win against God, as Herod swoops in and brings the power of death. But Mary, Joseph, and the child are delivered, and the very one Death wanted to kill has lived. Does this service of death and resurrection let Death know that it has not won?
If a funeral is held in a place other than a congregation’s worship space, the seasonal emotions may not be as near the surface. Even so, it is healthy for the pastor to pray in ways that acknowledge the seasonal context of the service. The prayer might be:
Merciful God, who gave us the miracle of new life in Bethlehem, we thank you for the new life you give now to (Name). Our journey during Advent days has brought us with expectancy to the Holy Day of Jesus’ birth. We bring to you that same anticipation and that same hope to this day and ask now that you bless it with a peace that the world cannot give and that, thanks be to your name, the world cannot take away.
In our ears rings a story of wise men, of shepherds, of new parents, and of a baby. Move our ears now to hear of a cross and an empty tomb, a cross that can save us and an empty tomb that points us toward a good tomorrow. We thank you for the way in which the life of (Name) has crossed our paths, and we rejoice that now (his) (her) path crosses the way with the Lord Jesus.
One of the hardest funerals I have conducted was for a long-time friend whose burial was on December 26. One of her daughters helped put the situation into perspective: “Mama would be glad to know that her funeral came at a time when everyone was still talking about Jesus.”
Excerpt from: Just in Time! Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Services, order the book below or if you have a Ministry Matters Premium Subscription it's included in your subscription!