In my personal prayer folder, for most of my life I’ve written down the names of people I’ve known who have died. Some are close family like my grandmother, my wife’s parents, my own father. Some are friends from school or college days. Some are the men and women who taught me or influenced me in important ways. Some have been work colleagues. Many are people I’ve worshipped with in the churches I’ve served in and whose funerals I conducted. At my age, these lists are getting long. I go back to them at this time of year – All Souls’ Day in November, Advent, Christmas. The whole of my life seems to be recorded there, because I have known each of them personally, even if not all in the same way. It helps me to be thankful for their memories, and to keep them alive in mine. And to continue to hold them before God.
It is so important to keep memory alive. ‘Lest we forget’ as we say at Remembrance. We should never forget those whose lives have been intertwined with ours, who have walked with us for a while. Most of our memories of the departed are grateful: we realise afresh how much we owe to them. Sometimes, our memories can be painful or hard: they may have needed to forgive us for some hurt we did them, or we may need to forgive them. I find that this can go on beyond death. It matters for them and for us that we do this spiritual, emotional work, this work of the heart. Christmas is a good time to remember, to be thankful, to be forgiving, to learn and to grow.
This is why we are here today. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the light of the World. St John says that this true light coming into the world at Christmas time enlightens all of us. These sayings draw on a long history in the Old Testament scriptures where God is our light and our salvation, and brings light to all the world’s peoples as heard in the readings earlier. At this dark time of the year when the days are shortest and spirits can be low, we need to hear these wonderful words and be strengthened by them. We need to reawaken our belief that they apply not only to the living but to the dead, for God holds all souls in life, and through Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection he lights up every life that has lived with his grace and truth.
Whatever loss brings you here, whatever your sadness or emptiness or pain, Christmas brings its message of light, peace, hope, comfort and joy. ‘The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more' says the hymn. I pray that the Holy Child of Bethlehem will light up all our lives, living or departed, this Christmas and always.
At St Cuthbert’s Hospice Service, ‘Light Up a Life’, 14 December 2014