The funeral last week celebrated the life of a dear 84-year old woman who I will especially miss because she lived on the route I take daily to walk my dogs. Before it got too cold in the past few days to walk my pair of short-haired little Italian Greyhounds, they would look up at her porch as we walked by, looking for her.
Even at 84 her death was a shock, one of those messy end of life situations where emotions are a muddled mix of sadness and anger fueled by questions about circumstances and the care she was receiving.
When I met with her family to plan the funeral, a daughter asked if we could sing Christmas hymns.
“Certainly not,” I replied. “It’s Advent. In the Lutheran Church we don’t sing Christmas songs until Christmas.”
Not really. Although there are some pastors who might say something like that . . .
What I did was the most important thing a pastor can do. I listened.
The children shared with me how special Christmas was for their mom. The daughter went on to tell me that another pastor had once said, attributing the quote to Martin Luther, that “The devil gets mad when we sing Christmas carols at a funeral.”
I had never heard that particular Martin Luther quote. He said and wrote a lot, but he’s sort of the religious analogue to Abraham Lincoln – he gets credit for plenty of stuff he didn’t actually say.
It certainly sounded like something Luther might have said; if not Lutheran than perhaps Lutherish. He did write often about how to repel the devil. Here’s a personal favorite: “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”
So at Saturday’s funeral we sang Christmas hymns. After we read Luke’s Christmas account and I shared my homily emphasizing the hope of the manger even in the midst of grieving, based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, we sang Silent Night.
But it was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at the end of the service that felt like a defiant proclamation of joy, as we raised our voices and sang . . .
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born king.”
We sang in defiance of death itself, proclaiming the king born in a manger had defeated sin and death once and for all.
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.
We sang for all of us, and for all of God’s children, reconciled to God in Christ, our relationship restored through the forgiveness of our sins.
Joyful all you nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies.
We sang our joy, even as we gathered because someone we loved had died. We sang our joy, even when it didn’t make sense.
With angelic hope proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
We sang the hope of Christmas, God in human flesh placed in a manger.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born king.”
I don’t know if the devil got mad. But we gathered there and sang our solidarity with each other as Jesus is in solidarity with us. We proclaimed that we are not alone in this messy world or in the messiness of our lives.
We sang about something bigger and better than death or disappointment or despair . . . we sang our hope.
(This post is adapted from an excerpt of a sermon preached for the Blue Christmas service at Christ Lutheran Church on Wednesday, December 14, 2016.)