In lamenting the sudden, tragic passing of our friend Ryan Bartlett (see Dec. 3 post, “Lament … ) I joined the people of God who through the ages have asked, “Why?” and “How long?” In asking these questions we acknowledge that things are not as they should be and that change is coming. In Christ we confidently assert that God will right all that is wrong. We also acknowledge our need not for answers or explanations, and certainly not for a “theology,” but for Presence. Only the Presence helps. We lament in hope of the answering Presence.
I write now on the third Sunday in Advent and the day before Ryan’s memorial service. The Bartletts and their many loved ones will join countless others for whom Christmas will never be the same. From now on Christmas will remind us of what happened and, at least for a while, Christmas will be tinged with sadness. For countless people this is so.
As I was reflecting on these things, I thought what a lousy time for a funeral–as though timing could ever be “good” for a young missionary’s death! Then, I thought, Christmas will not only never be the same, maybe it has been recked altogether. How could we sing those songs, watch the programs, observe the traditions as we once did? How could the warmth and joy of the season ever by ours again? What a lousy time and what lame ways to observe the season!
Then again, I thought, what does Paul mean when he tells the Galatian Church, “When the time was right (that is, “full”) God sent forth his son, born from a woman, under law, in order to redeem … ” (Gal. 4:4, my translation). That is, Paul says, “at just the right time in just the right way.”
Hmm, at just the right time? Yes, of course it was and it is. The Light of the world shines in the darkest night. The Bread of life comes to those most famished. The Living Water flows to the driest of places. The truth appears just when it seems the lie has won. The Way opens up negating the dead-end. The Resurrection and the Life rises like the dawn upon the shadows of the tomb.
It occurs to me that Christmas celebrates precisely the Presence that somehow responds to the cries-for-help masked by our “why” questions. Precisely into such lousy times the Presence comes. Precisely when we are layed low–or our loved one is layed into the lowest place, into the grave–the Presence enters to be with us in just the ways demanded by our need and pain, and to stay with us, and then to walk us to the time and the place where His Presence permits again the joy of our loved one’s presence we now so sorely miss.
St Matthew identified the gift of Jesus as “Immanuel”–God with us. When the Word became flesh the Presence came, the Presence stays, and the Presence fills our loss. At just the right time in just the right way.