The Day After Christmas I Think about Death

A Jesuit friend and I visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York two days after Thanksgiving. It’s the kind of place you have to see to believe – like the difference between seeing a postcard of the Grand Canyon and then actually going to the Grand Canyon – the experiences don’t compare. 

Two massive square holes  – the acre-sized footprints of the two towers – are now waterfalls bordered by the names of the fallen dead. The bottoms of these holes aren’t visible from above – eternity into the earth. The memorial is supposed to feel this way, I think. Where once we would have stood eyes shooting skyward toward the barely visible tops of the iconic buildings, we now stand looking downward, negative space forcing us to remember that something used to be there. 

Beneath these holes in the museum there is a grave – a wall bearing thousands of paintings trying to recall the blue of the sky on that September morning. Behind the wall rests the remains of unidentified people who died that day. A Virgil quote spelled out with letters cast in metal recovered from the site makes the point clear: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” 

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Just a week ago, I had the privilege of traveling to El Salvador. The morning after we arrived, we visited the place where six Jesuits were murdered by the Salvadoran army in the night on November 16, 1989. Five of the six were found dead in what used to be a basic courtyard. It is now a rose garden, a simple reminder of the way that life and death always dance together, beauty possible even in the midst of the ugliness of man. 

Two of the Jesuits’ companions were also killed that night – a mother and daughter. I stood in the room where they were shot. The mother – Elba – tried to shield her daughter – Celina – from the soldiers’ bullets. They were found that way, tangled up in maternal embrace, blameless victims of an atrocity that demanded no witnesses be left alive. Love itself pulsed in the room, cinder block walls expanding and contracting with each breath I took. 

Close to these sites, the Jesuits are entombed in the wall of a chapel – simple engraved metal squares bearing their names. On the exterior wall of the chapel, a quote from Archbishop Oscar Romero – “Si me matan, resucitaré en el pueblo salvadoreño.” If they kill me, I will rise in the Salvadoran people.

And the martyrs live on. Certainly, their story is told through the garden and their graves. Even more, the people still tell their story. A moment in the past made living in the present by the voices of those who remain. 

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My family has a long-standing betting pool related to the Green Bay Packers. There are 30 of us involved, and my parents serve as the primary administrators. Each week, we get a little email update letting us know who the big winners are.

My aunt died about a month ago after a long illness. She’s been a regular part of our conversation and prayer. And, as of this writing, she’s won the Packers betting pool every week since. She will not be forgotten.

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It’s over now. It’s December 26th. The day after Christmas. And, weirdly, while we celebrated a birth yesterday, we remember a death today. 

Over the last two days, many of us sat in overstuffed churches, little girls with golden curls bobbing up and down in red-and-green checkered jumpers, delighting in traditional Christmas music. Many of us saw faces from the year before, a welcome remembrance of the passage of time and the joy of home – we change, but some things don’t. Many of us ripped open presents and felt a strange relief when we got the thing we wanted, or perhaps surprise in getting the thing we didn’t know we wanted. Many of us ate our traditional family meal, drank a hot, boozy drink we only drink at Christmas time, and fell asleep overstuffed like the church, content and tired and grinning. 

Some of us didn’t have that experience. Some of us faced things we dread – the uncle who always asks the wrong question, the sister who makes you feel like your life is worthless, the cousin who never shows up, the grandparent who isn’t around anymore. 

Yesterday was about Emmanuel – God with us. A recollection of that moment when everything changed. A time of waiting over and a time for rejoicing at hand.

And then today – the very next day – we commemorate St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, stoned for proclaiming the name of Jesus. We take his example as the fulfillment of a good Christian life. The kind of life worth living. 

Of course, I’d rather that none of them died the way they did – Jesus, Stephen, the martyrs of El Salvador, the victims of 9/11, my aunt – not by violence or illness. It shouldn’t be that way. Sometimes, it is.  Life and death are both a part of the act of living in light of the living God. 

The birth of Jesus and the death of Stephen both remind us that our lives rest in the Lord – God with us now and always, present within humanity – within you and within me. Even in facing death.

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Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

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