Christmas gives meaning to first and final breaths

By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist

A few months ago, my wife and I and two of our sons stood beneath a giant tree in a Ugandan rain forest. The guide explained to us that what we had thought was the bark of the tree was actually a parasitic vine that had for multiplied scores of years been slowly encapsulating the actual tree. Then he pointed to a few “gaps” in the vine where we could see the tree itself. The tree and the vine were inseparable.

In this mortal life, life itself and death are like that.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, one week before Christmas Day, we got word that my sister had died. She had been in terrible health for years, so it was hardly unexpected, and it was in many ways a deep blessing. Still, when such a time comes and your universe changes, it is always a bit jarring to realize it has actually happened.

So on the Friday before Christmas, we found ourselves coveyed up with our extended family at a warm little church in Robert Lee, Texas, and then at the picturesque little cemetery eight miles out of town in the Edith Community (not much community left), a stone’s throw from the now-fallen-down cabin where my mother was born. We stood near my parents’ graves and did the work of brothers laying a sister’s body to rest.

Just a few days earlier—before he had any idea we’d be heading to a family  funeral—my younger brother Jim, also a pastor, had written about yet again standing with a family in a hospital room, and realizing how deep the connection is between two holy moments: “our first and our final breaths.”

“As the vigil unfolds, finally, the last critical breath of musty earth-air is exhaled and somewhere unseen, the same now unfettered soul breathes its first exhilarating breath of heaven.”

It’s poignantly ironic, Jim wrote, that “at the other end of the same hospital, people participate in a struggle of a different kind, a labor whose fruition is a new life, taking a first critical breath that officially encumbers and indentures it into a season of humanity. . . . One soul is freed from time; the other soul is bound by it, for a time.”

Just a breath or two after we left the cemetery, my family gathered for Christmas, gathered literally from across continents, and began to share smiles and laughter, good times together, fun and not a little food, and, not least, an eleven-month-old smiling granddaughter still at that wonderfully guileless age where the boxes the presents come in are as much fun for her as the gifts.

Yesterday, my firstborn called to say that he and his wife had heard the heartbeat of their unborn child. (It’s fast! Another beautiful granddaughter!?)

Jim’s right. “Because a baby born in a barn grew up, tasted fully of life, and was later laid in a tomb; and because he walked out of that tomb alive again, we also can walk away from funerals and cemeteries without leaving our hope in a casket.”

The new year has begun. Fine. I’m for any reason to take a day off and spend it with family. But the real hope of new life has nothing to do with calendars and everything to do with Bethlehem.