A weary world

Mom, sometime around 1950

During the week of Christmas, in the United States alone, thousands died of COVID. Thousands.

My mother, sadly, was one of them. She died in the hospital on Christmas Day, just as I was sitting down to dinner.

. . .

The speed with which she became ill and died caught us all by surprise.

Mom’s overall health had been declining for months, not because of the virus itself, but because of the necessary isolation imposed by the pandemic. Her assisted living facility had strict rules about who was allowed in or out of the building — indeed, in or out of the apartments. Confined to bed by the isolation and her chronic pain, she lay in bed nearly 24/7. If she wasn’t dozing, she was watching TV, even though she had more and more trouble seeing and understanding what was happening on the screen.

Her facility was very careful to avoid the risk of contagion. She had recently tested negative for COVID, and vaccination was right around the corner. But somehow, she was infected, and the virus took quick advantage of an already frail body.

When she began to complain of having trouble breathing, she was taken by ambulance to an overcrowded ER. We were surprised and grateful that she was admitted as quickly as she was.

But less than 24 hours later, she was gone.

We were not, of course, allowed to be with her, as we had been with Dad when he died nine years ago. But the nurse was thoughtful enough to call us as Mom’s breathing grew shallow, and held the phone up to Mom’s ear. “I don’t know if you can hear or understand what I’m saying,” I said, fumbling a bit for the words. “But I just wanted to tell you that I love you.”

And with that, the nurse told me, she took her last breath.

. . .

So. My mother went into the hospital on Christmas Eve, and died on Christmas Day. What am I supposed to make of that? How am I supposed to feel?

Even as the drama played out, I thought of the venerable TV classic M*A*S*H, which my wife and I had been binge watching. The series is set in the 1950s, at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital tending those injured in the war between North and South Korea.

In an episode entitled “Death Takes a Holiday,” a mortally wounded American GI is brought to the OR on Christmas Day. Most of the personnel are oblivious to the situation, and are having a party in the mess tent. But two surgeons, the chief nurse, and the chaplain spend the evening trying to keep the man alive until December 26th, so his kids back home won’t have to think of Christmas as the day they lost their father.

With only minutes left to Christmas, the soldier dies. But intent on rescuing Christmas for the man’s family, the doctors falsify the records, recording the time of death as just after midnight.

I remember thinking as I watched the episode, “Will those few minutes really make a difference to the family?” But the story still moved me.

Why? In part, because they portray a sentimental view of Christmas that I identify with and want to preserve. Isn’t everything supposed to be merry? Won’t Christmas be ruined by a family tragedy?

. . .

Lest we forget, there is nothing sentimental about the Christmas story. Jesus was born to a poor family under the shadow of imperial rule. The census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was for the purpose of Roman taxation — a crushing burden, corruptly administered.

Moreover, heaven announced the Messiah’s birth to lowly shepherds, instead of to those of the religious establishment. Foreigners had to announce his birth to King Herod, unwittingly marking the baby as the target of an assassination plot. And when Herod’s plot failed, other children and their families paid the fatal price. The world to which Jesus came was one in which the threats of war and famine were never far away, and power was routinely abused.

In other words: if the way we think about the Christmas story doesn’t have a place for lowliness and suffering, death and pain, then we’re telling the wrong story.

. . .

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

How many times have I sung that song? But until this year, I hadn’t realized that those who fell on their knees that night, hearing the voices of the angels, were the lowliest of society. They had no sentimental illusions to preserve, no power or privilege to protect.

But we all have a share in this weary world. These months of pandemic have been especially wearying, and the end is not quite in sight just yet.

Today, however, I choose to celebrate that our Savior was born both to defeat death and to show us how to live in the meantime. Until he returns, death will continue to be a necessary and unavoidable part of this broken world. But I choose to make Christmas not merely a day to mourn what was, but to hope for what will be: glorious resurrection life, without pain, death, or COVID.

So goodbye, Mom, for now.

And though I didn’t get a chance to say it, Merry Christmas.