Nothing says Christmas cheer like reading a collection of eulogies, right? Reading eulogies so powerfully laced with levity and gravity has actually rung a surprisingly sweet, though sobering note for me this Advent season.
In her collection The Book of Eulogies, Phyllis Theroux writes the following regarding the power of the eulogy as an art form.
“But for such a neglected literary form, the eulogy is surprisingly elastic, stretching beyond the pulpit to embrace memorial tributes, reminiscences, newspaper and magazine appreciations. As a powerful container for human feeling, it may not be surpassed…The eulogist is the first person to step forward, in a formal way, to hold a lantern above the loss.”
The writer even admits “There is nothing like reading a sizable number of eulogies to realize that the soul is real – and all that matters.”
Perhaps because I lost a beloved grandmother this year, or perhaps because my husband had the heavy privilege of offering the eulogy for one of his oldest friend’s daughter, my heart has been tender to all who are seeking to eek out a first or fortieth holiday in the wake of eulogy.
Having been swimming in a sea of eulogies for a few weeks, I have found myself far more able to be present with my husband and children, far more hungry to hear from God and to see life and the living as He sees them.
Strangely enough, Jesus performed a pre-humous eulogy for his beloved soon-to-be-beheaded cousin, John the Baptist.
John, who was set apart by the Holy Spirit since he leapt in the womb of the aged Elizabeth, had followed suit by living a life utterly set apart for God. He lived in lonely places. He ate locusts and honey. Following the Nazarite tradition (in Hebrew, nazarite literally means consecrated or set apart), he neither cut his hair not drank wine.
He lived differently, but even he who was the forerunner of the Christ, wrestled deeply with doubt. After having baptized Jesus to inaugurate His public ministry and joyfully released his own disciples to follow the Christ, John found himself imprisoned.
One can imagine that after a life lived in such full and faithful anticipation and preparation for the Messiah, John was more than a little confused by his present circumstances behind bars at the whims of an erratic leader. Surely, his cousin, whom He knew to be the long-awaited Messiah, would be coming to spring him out any day now. Yet days came and went and John still found himself behind bars.
In an earnest and understandable confusion, John sent a close friend and disciple to ask his cousin, “Are you the one who was to come or are we to look for somebody else?”
Jesus replies matter-of-factly to the messenger, “Go and tell John what you hear and see – that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers are being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised to life and the good news is being given to those in need” (Matthew 11; JB Phillips translation).
Jesus concludes with what seems like an ill-fitting sentence: “And happy is the man who never loses his faith in me.”
It is official. Jesus will not be miraculously rescuing John. As John’s disciples turn to carry the message back to their leader, Jesus offers the crowd a eulogy for John the Baptist, whom He knew would be killed shortly.
“Believe me, no one greater than John the Baptist has ever been born of all mankind, and yet a humble member of the kingdom is greater than he.” (Matthew 11; JB Phillips translation).
Incredible, tenacious faith does not always result in a loved one living to see one last Christmas, being healed, or returning home. John’s unparalleled faith left him beheaded, but still trusting in the Messiah despite strange and sad finales to lives lived well.
Whether this Christmas season finds you buried in tangible blessings or under a weighted blanket of heavy grief, may you find hope and fight for faith in the One who who himself experienced eulogy that we might enter into Eucharist, an eternal communion with God.
For the believer, on the other side of eulogy, an even better, fuller feast awaits. For the appetizer that is the sacrament of Eucharist on this side of glory points to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb on the other side of the veil.