In 1980, my great-grandfather Fred Isleib died on Christmas day at the age of 83. I was five years old and too small to remember being able to feel sad. I scarcely remember even impressions of him. I do remember a little about his funeral, mainly running and jumping between the gravestones where his remains were placed.
But the idea of losing someone on Christmas is a pretty painful one, no matter who passes. We might feel that such loss would darken Christmas for us, maybe forever. But honestly, I think that Christmas and death go very well together. Why?
As we continue to meditate on Christmas’s meaning, let’s read one of my favorite passages from St. Ignatius of Antioch:
Thus all magic was dissolved and every bond of wickedness vanished; ignorance was abolished and the old kingdom was destroyed, since God was becoming manifest in human form for the newness of eternal life; what had been prepared by God had its beginning. Hence everything was shaken together, for the abolition of death was being planned.
– Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 19:3
This moment of birth we are about to celebrate is “what had been prepared by God” and which with Christ’s coming “had its beginning.” And that beginning did indeed shake things up. It was an earthquake of cosmic proportions that shattered the foundations of the old order, the order that had been built on death.
Why? Because “the abolition of death was being planned.” Jesus’ coming here as a newborn child is precisely the arrival of a Hero Whose task is to prepare to meet His enemy and to throw him down from his lofty heights of arrogance.
No more will death have dominion over us. No more will we be bound by the sin that is in the world because of the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). This is the story that Christmas is part of, the story of Jesus coming to our world and wrestling with death and killing him forever. Death is the last enemy that shall be abolished (1 Cor. 15:26), and it is for abolishing death that Christ appeared (2 Tim. 1:10).
So, Christmas is about death. Christmas is a declaration of war against it.
When we celebrate Christmas, we are declaring our allegiance to the Champion Who has arrived, and we are enlisting in His army. We, too, shall fight against death in all its forms, all its influence, all its rebellion, all its evil.
If we take Christmas seriously, this is what we mean by it. Because of what began Christmas, death itself is being conquered and transformed into a passage into life.
And so of course we celebrate and sing “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” because we are about to be rescued from slavery to death. Is there any better reason to celebrate?