The bone chilling wind brought cold moments from the past. A moment’s shiver recalled an Advent Sunday ten years ago.
The funeral was two counties away, but at four in the afternoon it would arrive at our country churchyard – much later, and we would be standing in darkness.
“You’ll say a few words,” had come the request.
Many of those who would gather that afternoon would not have travelled to the church service.
They began to arrive before three. Every verge was filled with cars, the driveway of the house across the road, the yard of the neighbouring farm. Both sides of the road were filled with vehicles, and when the hearse arrived, the traffic filled the middle of the road.
The ground beneath our feet was cold and the chill seemed to travel upwards.
“You’ll say a few words?”
It seemed an altogether more intimidating prospect faced with the hundreds of people who now stood all around.
It was the first Sunday of the season of Advent, that time of the year when the church looks forward to the return of Jesus, when it recalls that the one who came as a baby in Bethlehem will come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead. It is a time when the church recalls John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus.
A silence fell among the crowd as the coffin was lowered into the ground.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped up to the microphone and asked the question that Jesus had asked of the crowd, “what did you go out to see?” When they had gone out to see John the Baptist, what they saw depended upon what was in their hearts. Why had people left the warmth of their homes on a winter’s afternoon to stand in a Co Laois churchyard? What they saw – an end or a beginning, depended on what was in their own hearts.
By 4.30, the few words, the committal, the prayers and the singing of a hymn were complete. The chill had grown stronger.
A man from Edinburgh came over and shook hands, “A good word, brother. My father used to preach at open air meetings; you got what he would have called a ‘good hearing.'”
There was an invitation to anyone who wished to join the family for a meal at a hotel ten miles distant. One hundred and fifty people enjoyed a roast dinner – fifteen tables of ten. There was a festive atmosphere.
Saying grace, I spoke of Jesus transforming the grief of Mary and Martha at Bethany into a moment of rejoicing.
How that day was seen depended on what was in the heart of the person there; how people see Christmas depends on what is their our own hearts.