Dear People of God at St. Luke's,
In a previous position we had moved back to southern Ohio, near Cincinnati and where I grew up. We were able to be close to family.
I remember that for the first two Christmases I heard from my mother that the family was gathering for a dinner celebration on Christmas eve around 6 p.m. "Mom," I replied, "I work then."(My mother was raised Presbyterian and later became Episcopalian.; Christmas eve services were not a novelty.) So the family gathered on Christmas day instead, my eyes held open by caffeine and toothpicks...but we were there.
After six years my (divorced) parents and grandmother had died. What a privilege to have been able to spend time with them.
Earlier this fall I asked people to write down what sort of questions they have for God, and these were given in the offering plate. I promised I would do my best to come up with some answers if I could, although just about every day of every week I'm reminded that I am as far from God as anyone else, but I've given some thought and prayerful reflection to matters over the past 26 years of active ministry. Seminary, by the way, is both a help and an impediment in different ways to dealing with lived matters of faith.
One question was raised by many people, each taking some form of "where is my loved one now that s/he has died; do they know what I'm doing; will I ever see them again?"
I think of these questions myself when I recall past holidays, as a child and as an adult. I think of my grandmother on her death bed, when I told her that she would soon see Paul , her first husband, Herman her second one (Ba lived to 95 and so out-lived both of them), her parents, and her sister Holly. To that last person's name she responded, "There are other people I'd rather see." It was funny then and funny now, but underscores part of what is at stake in the important questions you raised.
I am convinced that yes, we will see our loved ones as we are reunited, and reconciled to those with whom we have been in conflict or unease.
I can give you some of the answers provided by holy people of the past. First, we are united to Jesus, who died and rose again,; because we belong to him we too will rise. Second, Paul tells us that we can not imagine or dream what that reality will look and feel like, but it will be one of joy. We do not lose our individuality; our dignity as persons will be honored by the God who made us. Finally, when we say we believe in the communion of saints it means that somehow we are united with those who have died, with the difference that they no longer need the phone or internet to keep us with us.
Those are the statements of faith that we share. I hope they are of some help and comfort.
Story telling though is usually a more powerful way of apprehending such promises.
In my first job we had a family that did pretty well financially. The parents first started attending; they had four children, three of whom were married. One son was a school teacher and was recently married to another school teacher. A second child, a daughter, had lost her first child just after child-birth, a terrible situation. After the funeral for that child the school teachers and a sister who was single, along with her boyfriend, decided to get away for some distance and relief from the sorrow. One flew a plane, so they went from CT to NH to a place they knew. On their return the plane crashed for reasons never discovered, and there were no survivors.
So within a week's time after burying the newborn, we were in the same cemetery burying three adults, with the parents of the newborn and all the siblings' parents in attendance as well.
I don't know how people survive such devastating losses at times. But the mother of the family, the matriarch, was out in her garden not too long afterward and she was thinking about her lost loved ones, and she saw three butterflies settle down just in front of her. She wept, and laughed, and connected with promise that her family was still all alive, if not all in the earthly here and now.
OK, do I detect some eye-rolling out there? Is that the way God works, to send reassurance? Can't prove that scientifically, and those more 'rational' minded suggest we look for coincidental events to fit into our own pattern of understanding. But faith isn't confined to our rational selves, and in her heart this mother knew that her lost ones were safe.
I close by recommending a book just out in paperback recently, Proof of Heaven, by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who trained and worked at Harvard Medical School and Boston area hospitals. After many years of surgery and research about how the brain works he experienced his own dramatic health crisis as his brain shut down from meningitis. He was effectively brain dead for several days in ICU. Everything that makes a person a self-aware self was gone physically. He reports that his one-time skepticism was answered by a trip to heaven which he tries to explain in his book.
Christmas is a time of gathering loved ones together. I can't think of any more fitting way of knowing that Jesus Incarnate, the Word made Flesh, the Infinite made finite, is a time of celebration than the assurance that our deepest longings are met by God.
Peace be with you.