Christmas brings message of hope after a grim year - Murdo Fraser

2020 must go down in history as one of the grimmest years in our lifetimes.

Murdo, middle, and his brother Alexander (right) with their father on a trip to St Kilda to mark his 80th birthday in 2009.
Murdo, middle, and his brother Alexander (right) with their father on a trip to St Kilda to mark his 80th birthday in 2009.

Even those not directly impacted by the deadly Covid-19 virus have felt its indirect effects: those suffering from illnesses and conditions waiting for medical treatment; those living alone coping with the lack of human interaction; those with relatives in care homes they could not see. On top of that we have the enormous economic impact, with jobs lost, businesses failing, and futures ruined.

Our own family has had its tragedy this year. Only last week my dear Dad passed away at the age of 91, dying peaceably as the result of a stroke. As one of a family of eight, Sandy Fraser grew up on a hill farm in Stratherrick above Loch Ness, leaving home to take up an apprenticeship as a car mechanic, joining the RAF and serving in the UK and Malta, before returning to Inverness where he worked with vehicles all his life, latterly as a driver for the police.

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We were never well off as family by today’s standards, but Dad worked hard to provide, spending evenings doing jobs on cars for some extra money. He was a man with a strong Presbyterian work ethic, one who always had to be up and doing, and he could turn his hand to virtually anything: bricklaying, roofing, joinery, plumbing, electrics, groundworks, gardening, and beekeeping. He had a wide circle of friends for whom he could never do enough, and with whom he enjoyed debating the issues of the day.

Dad had a great singing voice and was precentor in his church until just a few weeks ago, frustrated but undaunted by the restraint of having to wear a face mask. Alas, his musical talent was not passed on to this tone-deaf son, much to his disappointment.

In recent years he took on a new role for my mother as her full-time carer, bearing the burden cheerfully and without complaining, and resisting our regular suggestions that he should seek external help. It is only in the last few days, now that he is no longer with us, that we truly understand all that he had to go through, but not once did he see it as a trial to look after the wife with whom he celebrated 60 years of marriage in March.

That was an event we were unable to properly celebrate with the lockdown restrictions that were in place, and today we face the same challenge in trying to arrange a socially-distanced funeral for no more than 20 people, when so many friends of this warm, kindly, popular man would want to join with us to pay their respects.

If there is one consolation in all this, it is that we know he didn’t suffer. Dad was fit and active all his years – as far as I can recall, he didn’t spend a single night of his life in hospital. For a man who had just recently celebrated his 91st birthday, that was a remarkable achievement. Not for him the years of slow and painful decline, the trips in and out of medical institutions, or a bed in a care home. It was a swift and sudden end, and in many ways that is a blessing.

None of that makes any easier the desperate pain of bereavement, the empty chair where he once sat, the empty clothes and shoes he will never wear again, the space in our lives that he once filled that is now just a void, forever. The world has changed, it is now without him, and nothing will ever bring him back.

But there is a hope that lifts us above this grief, and one which we pay at least lip service to at the time of year, if at none other. Christmas is not just a time for family celebration after a wearying year; not just about turkey with the trimmings, or presents under the tree. Even to the most irreligious amongst us there is some understanding that this is inherently a Christian festival, remembering a child born two millennia ago in Bethlehem who brought a simple, but world-shattering message: that death can be overcome.

The familiar declaration of the angels to the Judean shepherds resonates through the ages, as powerful today as when it was first delivered: “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord”.

For today’s troubled times there could be nothing more relevant or welcome. In a society searching for answers to life’s great mysteries, the good news of Christ is there as the solution, and a sublimely simple one at that. Christianity is the easiest religion in the world to follow. No need for intricate rituals or sacrifices, no lifetime of striving to earn salvation: the promise of eternal life is there for everyone. We only have to believe. That’s it. Just believe.

It is because Dad passed from us believing, that the sorrow of our parting is tempered with the joy of knowing that the glory that he goes to is greater than anything that he knew in his long life here. That is the promise to us all from the Christ child. This Christmas, just believe.

O come, thou Key of David come

And open wide our heavenly home

Make safe the way that leads on high

And close the path to misery

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