OXFORD, ENGLAND — As my father’s colon cancer was killing him during the 1994 Christmas season, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles unexpectedly visited my parents’ home in Bountiful, Utah, and gave him a blessing before he died.
Nearly a quarter century later, I sat in stunned silence last month in an overwhelmingly beautiful little Anglican chapel in Oxford, England, as Elder Holland delivered a Christmas message about his own father’s massive heart attack just before Christmas in 1976.
Until then, I hadn’t known the rest of the story, a story of two dear fathers and two sons bereaved in their absences.
Every December, a member of my family inevitably mentions how sad it is to remember our father’s death at Christmastime. It certainly is difficult to juxtapose the joy of Christmas with a loss of such magnitude. As I fulfilled a Church News reporting assignment at Oxford’s Pembroke College Chapel on Nov. 25, I realized Elder Holland had experienced the exact same feelings when his father had heart attacks both during and after a scheduled back surgery in 1976.
“By the time we finally got to see him, wired and tubed and gray and unconscious, it was mid-afternoon on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve,” Elder Holland said. “‘Magnificent timing,’ I muttered to no one in particular.”
Christmas Eve turned into Christmas morning as he paced and prayed, alone in an unfamiliar hospital, feeling sorry for himself and mumbling questions about why he had to lose his dad at Christmas.
Then he received what he termed a “theological wake-up call.”
“At 3 a.m., late-early morning in a very quiet hospital, immersed as I was in some sorrow and self-pity, heaven sent me a small, personal, prepackaged revelation, a tiny Christmas declaration. In the midst of my mumbling about the very poor calendaring in all of this, I heard the clear, unbroken cry of a baby.”
The calendaring and divine grace of the timing of that birth changed his outlook. He recognized the joy the new child must be in its parents’ lives. He remembered that his own mother always reminded him of the joy he brought her as a Christmas baby himself.
“With new eyes then, that morning, I went back to look at my dad, the great gift-giver who was starting to make his way out of the world on Christmas Day. He was doing so on the wings of the greatest gift ever given — the Atonement and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. I thought of another Father who gave that gift.”
Elder Holland was nearly 5,000 miles from Bountiful, speaking in a dimly-but-artfully lit chapel to about 80 people during a traditional Anglican Christmas service called “Nine Lessons and Carols” which is “the tale of the living purpose of God,” according to the college’s chaplain, the Rev. Andrew Teal.
But I felt like Elder Holland might as well have been ministering to my family again, 24 years after he blessed my father in his final days. He said we must occasionally speak of Christmases and other days “that for whatever reason may not be as joyful or do not seem to be ‘the season to be jolly.’ ”
His message followed nine hymns and carols alternated with nine readings from Genesis, Isaiah, Matthew, Luke and John about the Fall, prophecies of Christ and the story of His birth.
His message from Luke 2 about Simeon, “this dear old man” who held a weeks-old Christ Child in his arms at the temple in Jerusalem, balanced joy and pain. Simeon both rejoiced at the fulfillment of a promise that he would see the Messiah but also issued a dire warning that the Child’s death would be like a sword piercing His beloved mother’s soul.
Elder Holland said it is justifiable to ask if that ominous warning was appropriate in that season of Christ’s birth. But standing under an ornate ceiling that bore Latin phrases like “Redemptor Omnibus” — Redeemer of all — Elder Holland said Simeon’s prophecy to Mary was appropriate and vital. We all should see the meaning of Christmas the way Simeon saw it.
“The true meaning,” Elder Holland said, “the unique, joyous meaning of the birth of this baby, was not confined to those first hours in Bethlehem but would be realized in the life He would lead and in His death, in His triumphant atoning sacrifice — remember why Joseph and Mary were in the temple — and in His prison-bursting Resurrection. These are the realities that make Christmas joyful.”
It is the reality my own angel mother reinforces each December for me and my six sisters. Later this month, she will again gather her children and their spouses for an endowment session at the Bountiful Utah Temple in honor of my father. Together in the celestial room, we will celebrate the prison-bursting Resurrection and look forward to reunions.