On Christmas Day, 2010, a friend of mine died. At the very time I heard the news I was thinking about birth and death—especially the birth of Jesus, and the death he faced. To be more specific, I was thinking and writing about T.S. Elliot's famous poem:
Please read it (click the link above), and/or listen to it as read by the author.
In the poem, written after his conversion to Christianity in 1922, Elliot highlights the real purpose of Christ's birth, with his mention of three trees on the skyline, and men dicing for pieces of sliver in a tavern as they kick at their empty wineskins.
I didn't have that problem myself on Christmas day. I'd managed to stock up with a rather nice box of Rosé wine, a five litre keg of German beer, a large bottle of Cider, and several bottles of sparkling water. That was a good thing because the gentleman I'd invited to lunch enjoyed a drink with his meal!
Although it took longer to cook than expected I was pleased with my culinary efforts. We started with smoked salmon on crackers, followed by a stuffed roast bird with roast potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and leeks ... and finished off with the traditional mince pie and Christmas pudding, topped with custard and brandy butter. Yummy!
What we didn't know, however, was that my lunch companion's brother had passed away—either earlier in the day or while we were eating. It wasn't totally unexpected. He was in a terminal care hospice and my lunch mate had seen him the day before and knew that he didn't have long in this life. After our meal he went to the hospice and found that his brother had died. He told me that he saw his brother's body and that he appeared to be peaceful in death.
I knew these two brothers from a dinner club we were all involved with. They're both men of faith, and I have no doubt that at this very moment one of them is rejoicing with the amazing joy that comes from leaving behind this 'vale of tears' and seeing the face of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
You might ask ... "Apart from the obvious connection of the subject matter, what's that got to do with T.S. Elliot's poem?"
Well, later in the day I was creating an abridged version of it to send to church colleagues by text message, when my friend rang to tell me the news. Suddenly, what had been an interesting but rather academic exercise turned into a powerfully poignant expression of the deepest truths of the Christian faith.
... were we led all that way forMost of us think that birth and death are very different. We see birth as a joyful event, and death as a sad, even tragic, one. But is that necessarily an accurate view?
Birth or Death? ... I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
For Elliot's Magi, their journey was one of spiritual discovery—the discovery that the birth they had travelled so far to witness actually spelt death to all that they had previously held dear. A lifetime before they had enjoyed their royal palaces, with "the silken girls bringing sherbet". Now all that seemed trivial and they were "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation".
Like many since then, witnessing that remarkable birth brought them to the realisation that our life on this planet is actually our gestation for eternity. They discovered that once you see Christ and touch Him—and are touched by Him—you lose all affection for "an alien people clutching their gods". Instead you find yourself looking forward, with longing, to your own entry into paradise.
For the traveller who has met Christ death is far from being a sad event. Death is a birth—a passing out of this Earthly womb into the infinite wonders of the multi-dimensional universe beyond. And that's not only true for the lucky ones who have had the opportunity to put their faith in Christ, but for all of those who, like Abraham, have heard the voice of God and put their trust in Him...
(see Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23)
It brings a lump to my throat to think that on the day we celebrated the birth of Jesus, my friend passed through God's spiritual 'birth canal' into the bright light of eternal day.
But why should I be sad? If I am, it's a sadness tinged with joy... which reminds me of a similar story I heard recently.
A few days ago 'D'—another friend of mine—told me of a spiritual experience she had some months after her mother died. Although D believed in heaven and believed that her mother was there, she struggled to come to terms with her mother's death. Then one night she had a dream in which she saw her mother looking down on her from that higher place.
Her mother was exuberant and ecstatically happy. In the dream her mother asked D how she was, and received the reply:
"I cry a lot, and I'm sad all the time."
Her mother replied, simply...
"There's no reason to be!"
D told me that the dream was the turning point in her grief journey, and that her recovery started that night.
Her story reminds me of an event that took place just before my own mother passed away, fourteen years ago. I had been abroad, working in Brazil, and returned to the UK a week or so before she died. She had advanced cancer, and was also suffering from the symptoms of advanced Alzheimer's disease.
On the day in question she was in a comatose state, drugged with Morphine to kill the pain. I was sitting alone with her, next to her bed, when all of a sudden she emerged into consciousness and became quite lucid. I asked her is there was anything she wanted, and she asked me to read her favourite poem to her.
A poetry book was next to the bed with a bookmark in it. I opened it and found the poem, Love Bade Me Welcome, by George Herbert. (Listen to it here and here, or search for it on YouTube.) As I read I knew in my heart that God's Spirit was with us. Later I realised that He had brought her briefly back to me in order to bring the poem to my attention. It was for my sake rather than for hers that she asked me to read it.
As soon as I finished reading she thanked me and slipped back into semi-consciousness. A few days later she vacated her earthly body and became the guest of the greatest Dinner Host of all. We had not been very close during her life, but that supernatural experience gave me assurance that one day she and I will meet again, and have the closeness we missed in this life.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,That's the question we all have to face. Each of us is on a journey and we have a long way to travel. The pertinent question is: Are we travelling towards Birth or Death?
And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
The journey from natural birth to natural death is much less important than the one from natural birth to spiritual birth. If we've made that second journey then natural death holds no terrors for us. It transforms natural death, turning it from a tragedy—a tragedy of monumental proportions—into a victorious home coming on a par with that of any conqueror returning home with the spoils of war.
Where, O death, is your victory?Yes, our eventual victory over all that wants to conquer us will be sweet. But it comes at a price, and there will have been many bloody battles along the way, some of which will have tested us to our very limit.
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:51-57)
A hard time we had of it . . . . [tell me about it!]I loved watching the Narnia films on TV over Christmas. They're a very graphic reminder that there's no gain without pain; that battles—inner, outer or both—are an inevitable, and even necessary, part of life this side of eternity.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches . . . . . [a familiar experience]
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Once we have been born, spiritually—born from above, or 'born again' as Jesus Himself put it (John 3:1-20)—then the rest of the journey, though often very difficult in this life, is part of an eternal story which really will go on and on, for ever. And when we pass over the 'river of Jordan' (to use a Negro Spiritual analogy), that journey will become pain free and ever more amazing and wonderful, without any end in sight.
What's required is that we step out of our comfort zones and start the journey the Magi took, looking for the one born King of the Jews—Matthew 2:2—and born king of everyone else also.
A cold coming we had of it...
... and such a long journey:
... I should be glad of another death.
© John Jenkins, 25/12/10
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