I hope you’re prepared for Christmas. Ready or not, here it comes. You may still be looking forward to giving thanks, but Target and WalMart have moved on. Everywhere you go, decorations are going up. I am usually diametrically opposed to bringing out the Christmas stuff before the turkey is digested, but this year I decided that starting the celebration a little early wouldn’t hurt a thing. Caroline and I made a Christmas playlist on our iPods last night. The worshipful music of Christmas really gets me in the mood.
For our family, a typical Christmas season includes at least one trip to Hallmark for cards and wrapping paper. In my opinion, greeting cards are one of the biggest rackets on the planet. Those suckers can cost upwards of $5 a piece! But, can’t a well-timed and well-worded card just make your day? Maybe even your year? I think so. And, you know it is a Hallmark card when you see that gold seal on the envelope. If you don’t recognize the gold seal, you probably didn’t grow up in America. If there is one thing we are good at as a nation, it is advertising. We know our brand names here. And, Hallmark’s signature is that gold seal. It is supposed to be a symbol of the quality of the card—a mark of its worth and value.
But, have you ever thought that the gold seal might just be a little misleading? The outside may have a gold seal, but it doesn’t guarantee that the card inside is truly a Hallmark card. Even if it is, the card inside could be less than tasteful . Or, maybe, the person giving you the card has ill-intent. Maybe what they wrote inside the card wasn’t very nice. My point is you really don’t know until you open the envelope. The outside of things can be very misleading. Things aren’t always what they seem.
On the day that we buried Audrey, I faced the cemetery with trepidation. I had been in so much shock that I had wanted nothing to do with the physical aspect of the funeral preparation and burial. It was just too hard for me. Bryan and our dads did the difficult work of meeting with the funeral director and making decisions. So, while I helped plan the celebration of Audrey’s life that we held in the church, I had essentially no idea what was going to take place at the cemetery. Feeling like a lamb walking to the slaughter, I took a deep breath and approached the tiny coffin under the green tent, all the while trying to understand that it was really my little girl inside. I don’t remember anyone else around me. I hope someone held my husband’s and my children’s hands. Maybe I did. All I remember is making a beeline for my baby.
I had chosen not to see her after the accident. I had put her in the car seat of my friend’s van on that morning, kissed her goodbye, and blown her a kiss as I watched the vehicle drive away. I remember very clearly the smile on her face. That was the last time I laid eyes on her physical body. There had been three days of separation from her since that fateful moment, and I was coming near to her body for the last time on this earth. It was surreal.
At the side of the casket, I collapsed to my knees and placed my arms over it. I remember asking the orientation of her head and feet. I wanted to hold her so badly. My mother knelt down beside me. All at once, I remember being aware of the casket. It was white with a textured fake-velvet look to it. It felt like a cheap box of chocolates. I was horrified. I shot a distressed look at the man from the cemetery. It seemed like such an unfit way to send my child out of the world. I was always fastidious about the way I groomed and dressed her. The three matching dresses I had just purchased for my daughters for Christmas that year—smocked with snowmen—had arrived just in time to bury Audrey in one. My airways were constricting as I came to the realization that I was going to have to bury her in this crummy, cheap box. Sensing my disgust, the funeral director said, “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. It was all we had in stock. We just don’t need coffins this size very often. I told your husband that we could order something better, but we would have had to delay the funeral.”
Letting that news sink in, my mother and I knelt in silence for a while. Then, I saw her reach around the side of the coffin and pick at something. She began to chuckle. “Oh, God,” she said, “There is a gold sticker on the side of this thing! Do you mind if I take it off?” Some of the last few minutes at my daughter’s side were spent picking a stupid little gold sticker off of her coffin. It was one of the weirdest moments of my life.
I wish that were the end of the weirdness at the cemetery, but it wasn’t. Our pastor said some lovely and truth-filled things (that I admittedly don’t remember), and that was the only good thing about the burial. After his brief sermon was over, an odd woman emerged with a cage full of white pigeons. (Apparently, this is a service offered free of charge by the funeral home and was billed as something that may be “concrete” and meaningful for my children, so my husband, in his grief, said, “Why not?”) The woman made a corny speech about releasing the birds and symbolically releasing Audrey’s spirit. Then she proceeded to pull out a battery-operated jam box and play the reggae version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” (About now you may be thinking, “Are you kidding?” Trust me, I wish I was.) I wanted to shove the woman, bless her heart. She really was trying to help. But, this could not have been more incongruous considering the hopeful, Biblical service we had just had at church. And, it could not have been less of a representation of our family’s heart or personality than it was. The woman handed the birds to Bryan and I and the girls and then coached us when to let them go. I hate birds, by the way. I didn’t want to touch them. But, I was trying to cooperate. I think I may have shaken my head and laughed. Again, I was horrified.
I don’t want to give the impression that any of the weird things about the burial were Bryan’s fault. Really, he was merely letting the funeral home do what they were supposed to do best. But, it was devoid of the meaning we needed to feel victorious over the death of our child. In short, it felt like a cheap representation of the truth. The irony was that a gold seal, which usually indicates quality and worth, symbolized for me the utter emptiness of the world’s take on death.
Things aren’t always what they seem. Never had that been so glaringly apparent to me as it was kneeling next to my baby’s coffin that day. God was already helping me to see that though this looked like the end, it was indeed the beginning of something very significant. Not only was it the beginning of Audrey’s eternal life unmarred by sin and death, but for me it was the commencement of a journey to gain an eternal perspective and to live with eternal hope. It looked as if I were putting my daughter into the ground in an ugly cardboard box, when the truth is that she will be coming out of that box in a glorified body on resurrection day!
I don’t think I had ever given that a thought before. Not only does the Bible promise Heaven for those who trust Christ, it also promises that when Christ returns, there will be bodily resurrection for believers. And, it promises a human existence on a resurrected earth—the New Earth. Read Paul’s diatribe on bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. He says we are to be pitied more than anyone if we only hope in Christ for this life and we do not believe we will be raised just as Christ was raised (v 19). Verses 42-43 say of the resurrection of the dead, “Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor (as I feel Audrey was buried), raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power.”
That gold sticker has come to symbolize for me the stamp of the world on death. It is the world’s seal of approval on the hollow (or, at the very least, shallow) explanation of what happens to a person after they die. There are many beliefs, but only one that is true, only one that comforts. And, I have found that even amongst Christians, we have not spent near enough time studying the subject. It is uncomfortable and inconvenient. We figure we can put it off. But, our hollow explanations do not cut it when we are putting a loved one’s body in the ground. We must know more. That is why I have made it a passion of mine to study what the Bible has to say about what awaits us. And, I am so excited about what I have learned. It has changed my life. Will you let it change yours?
As we approach Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in celebrating the amazing gift of eternal life we have inherited as believers in Jesus. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)
And, as we approach the Christmas season, let us do so with great joy. Let us remember that Christ’s birth was the answer to the world’s groaning since the first sin. Emmanuel: God with us. The fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah is proof that He will also fulfill His promise of Christ’s return. May we learn to long for it!