A friend once told me that the old and the young are the bookends of life – they belong together and depend on each other – and those of us in between rely on them for support. A few years ago my wife Katrina and I, with our two-year-old daughter, offered to share our home with two of Katrina’s elderly aunts. Sarah and her younger sister Rachel were soon an irreplaceable part of our family and known as “the aunties.”
We got to know one another intimately in no time. Our life together was interspersed with joy, fellowship, and laughter – and, of course, the occasional misunderstanding or minor conflict (the former far outshining the latter). In short, close-knit community with young and old. Our daughter and the aunties were our bookends, and all our lives were enriched in ways we never would have guessed.
After several years of living with the aunties, Katrina and I found we were expecting our second child. When we told Sarah and Rachel they were just as excited as we were. As the weeks progressed the anticipation grew.
Then, not long before our baby was due, Sarah grew quite ill and was having a very hard time breathing. Over the next days, despite medical help, she grew steadily worse. We gulped, realising that she might not even live to see our little one arrive. We had to keep reminding ourselves that this was not in our hands, and not let panic overtake us.
Sarah, on the other hand, was completely accepting of her situation. Never once did she complain or grow agitated. Friends and neighbors rallied, and a steady stream of adults and children dropped by her room to encourage and support her. We were overwhelmed and grateful.
Although it was still October, Sarah often had us sing Christmas carols. In her weakness, she was turning us all to where she found her strength: Jesus. The one she had trusted and turned to all through her life was now offering her his peace, the peace that passes all understanding.
Early the following week we were eating lunch with Rachel while someone else sat by Sarah’s bedside. Near the end of the meal we were called and told to hurry to Sarah’s room. As we entered we saw that God had already called her home.
We were devastated, stunned. She was gone, after all this time together. Our little one had not yet arrived and she was gone. It hurt, especially for Rachel, but as we wept we knew, as Sarah had known, that death was not the end. That she had been released from all pain and suffering and was home. It was as if she had slipped through a very thin curtain between this world and the next. God held Sarah and each of us, those here and those still to come, in his almighty hands.
That same evening it became clear that our little one was about to arrive. Oh God, what are you showing us? To move from losing a loved one to welcoming another soul into this world was more than we could grasp. The night was long and filled with uncertainty. Then, just 24 hours after Sarah died, our son Derek was born. What a moment, to feel the reality of the other world so close and so tangible. Again it felt as if a curtain had parted and Derek had passed through to this side. We wept again, full of joy and relief and overwhelmed by the nearness of God’s great love.
We looked at our son, so small and vulnerable, weak and innocent. Was the birth of a baby in Bethlehem 2000 years ago this real? Was he this small and vulnerable? Yes, it was this real. He is this real. Christmas is not just a story or a celebration. It is a reality greater than we realise or dare to admit. Both the passing of Sarah and the birth of Derek turned us to this reality: that this child Jesus, born in such desperate poverty, is the answer, the hope, and the comfort for each of us – and for every heartrending situation on this globe.