The scent of Christmas is in the air, and I’m thinking about death. No twinkling lights or perfectly wrapped gifts can quite banish that lurking shadow.
At a Bible study a couple of weeks ago I led the group through John 11, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. We dwelt for a while on the heart of Christ in this passage. Even though he knew he was about to bring his friend back to life, Jesus weeps at his graveside. He weeps for the sorrow of the friends around him. He weeps for the brokenness of this world, where grief pierces like a knife. This is not how it was meant to be.
An hour or two after I got home from that Bible study, I read the news that Tim Challies’ twenty-year-old son had gone to be with the Lord. It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t comprehend the heavy weight of grief Tim and Aileen and their daughters were carrying. When I tried to pray for them, I couldn’t find the words. But one image stayed steady in my mind: Jesus weeping in the face of death and sorrow.
There’s a street near my church that I’ve walked down countless times. I happened to go down Memorial Avenue a few days later to get to the bank, and for possibly the first time I really looked at it. Trees line both sides of the street, each with a plaque at the base dedicated to one of the forty-four men from our local area who lost their lives fighting in the Second World War. I wandered along, reading each of the names and wondering who they were. A little internet research gave me some answers. Stanley George Jefferay was twenty-six, the age I am now. Norman Keith Becker died at twenty-four, as did my friend Natasha two years ago. And like Nick Challies, Samuel Thomas Fyffe was just twenty years old. When I stood before the war memorial plaque listing all those names, I couldn’t help but cry—for all those men, for their heartbroken families, and for Nick.
No matter how elaborately we deck the halls, our Christmas decorations don’t shine quite bright enough to pierce the darkness of this world. Our holiday spirit cannot sustain us when death presses in. But there is an image that bursts through the darkness, that dawns so bright we can hardly bear it: our compassionate, weeping Saviour. It’s not the helpless kind of weeping that I did at the war memorial. When Jesus can catch his breath, he asks the people around him to roll away Lazarus’ tombstone. He tells his friend to come out, and Lazarus walks right out of the grave.
This incredible miracle was a foretaste of something even greater to come. Not long after that day, Jesus is killed on a cross. He remains, like Lazarus, in the tomb for a few days. And then he rises from the dead. Jesus demonstrates his divine power and perfect love once and for all. He weeps for our brokenness and then heals it. He weeps for death and then conquers it. He weeps for his friends and then saves us.
We should not downplay the grief we face in this life. This Christmastime, there seems to be more of it going around. Maybe it will feel a little like those Decembers during the Second World War, when families tried to celebrate amid heartbreaking loss and uncertainty. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more families are missing loved ones—and of course the unexpected tragedies like Nick Challies’ death will keep tripping us up too. Even families who haven’t faced death will grieve separation from their loved ones.
But there is hope amidst it all. Jesus has conquered death, and he will make all things right at the end of time: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And until that day, the love of our weeping Saviour will sustain and comfort us.