Emmanuel, God with us, is a word we use at Christmas to describe the Son of God visiting Earth in human form two thousand years ago. We mark a time in history that changed everything about the way we think, what we value, how we treat one another.
But what does God with us mean? Is He standing next to us, or living within us? Did He come just once two thousand years ago? Are we now alone in the universe? Do the wise teachings of the ancients and the brave devotion of this generation of followers give us only a shadow of the hope of Emmanuel?
Or is God still with us?
“Diener” (pronounced dee-ner) is the German word for servant. You would know this if you took three years of high school German, or worked in a morgue.
A morgue is not a mortuary. A mortuary is where a body is prepared for a funeral or a burial. A morgue is where a body is stored before it gets to the mortuary, located in a hospital or at the medical examiner’s office. A diener prepares the body for either an autopsy or transfer to a mortuary, and also assists the pathologist in the autopsy by doing such menial tasks as sewing up the torso afterward and sawing open the skull for the removal of the brain. It is a job for a servant, but not for the faint-hearted.
I spent most of the summer before I started college working as a counselor at a YMCA day camp for elementary-school-aged boys. Each weekday morning I boarded a yellow school bus with the campers and other counselors and traveled for about an hour into the country where we divided up and I took my ten kids for adventures in the woods, swimming in the leech-infested pond, and playing field games in the open area next to the large poison ivy patch. High in fun level, low in stress level, and even lower in pay level. At the end of the summer I needed a real job.
The university had a student job service. Potential employers called in with job needs that were posted on 3×5 cards on bulletin boards, and students could survey the cards and get contact information to apply for the jobs. My previous job experience–the above, plus paper-boy, dishwasher, janitor, and a short stint as fry cook before I got fired (another story)–didn’t qualify me for much, but I did find a promising lead to a job selling tires at a shop on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. Then I found one more at the University Hospital working in the morgue for nearly double the minimum wage, and therefore double anything I’d ever been paid before. The job duties were vague. I figured it was open because other students were scared of dead bodies (true) and it probably didn’t require anything more than sweeping and mopping the floor (untrue).
I grabbed both cards and headed out the door. The hospital was closer, so I called them first, and to my surprise a got an immediate interview with an administrator. I filled out a quick application form and sat next to his desk as he described a diener’s job. Blessed with German-Norwegian heritage that makes a poker face my natural expression, I listened patiently while planning my trip to the tire store on Lake Street.
Finally he said, “So would you be interested?”
I wanted to be an all-American male. Somehow this was important to me. John Wayne wouldn’t have flinched; neither should I. And already I was calculating that it was Friday and they would offer to train me the following week and by then I would be happily selling tires.
“Sure,” I said.
Then he said what every other job applicant wants to hear, and I did not: “Great! We’ll get you started right away.”
Surprise and near panic severely tested my poker face. If I backed out now, not only would I be a coward, I’d be a liar. Never has anyone been so desirous of selling tires and somehow unable to get out the words to make his new-found dream come true.
He picked up his desk phone and made a quick call to the morgue telling someone that he’d be bringing down the new diener. I followed him out from a maze of cubicles to a maze of hallways, then to a bank of elevators, then down to the lowest floor, through the windowed doors of a quiet hospital ward, and finally to windowless wooden doubled doors placed at a 45 degree angle in the corner of two long corridors.
I have since worked in many hospitals and I can confirm one unmitigated fact about hospital architecture: the morgue is always in the back on the lowest floor.
The administrator knocked twice on the door, told me to stay exactly where I was, and quickly walked fifty feet down the hall. I looked after him, my inner qualms temporarily giving way to astonishment.
He stopped, turned, and said, “I’ve got to go. This place gives me the creeps.” Then he turned, quickly disappearing through the doors to that quiet hospital ward and I never saw him again.
I stood in front of the wooden doors, the mouth on my poker face now slightly agape. One door then opened slowly to reveal an elderly and diminutive Black man wearing a surgical gown and cap, who, in a measured nasal voice, said (in great similarity to the celebrated horror-movie star of the ’40’s and ’50’s, Lon Chaney), “Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”
I stepped into an antechamber with benches and shelves filled with gowns and paper caps and shoe covers. The antechamber opened to two separate procedure rooms, each one on that particular day in the middle of an autopsy. My new supervisor introduced himself as “Howie,” and instructed me on how to don the surgical caps and gowns. Lastly, he showed me surgical gloves, fitted me for the correct size, and warned me not to waste them because they were expensive. Then we both looked up into the autopsy rooms.
The last time I had seen a dead body was ten years before when I attended the funeral of my great-uncle Ole. Ole, in his coffin, looked like he had in real life, except a bit more pale and much better dressed. My grandmother had died at our home when I was twelve but we weren’t allowed to see her. I don’t remember the funeral or what she looked like. Otherwise, I had no experience with death.
Running on momentum rather than courage, I followed Howie into one of the rooms. The autopsy was at midpoint, the torso open. Howie told me that the pathologist needed to dissect something high in the neck and I would have to place my hand into the upper opening and pull the tissue toward me so that he could see what he was doing. The flesh was shockingly cold but I did as I was told. I sensed at my elbow Howie’s approval by his eerie silence and immobility.
I apparently passed the final job interview. I few minutes later I could release my hold, and Howie proceeded to demonstrate the key duties of the diener which involved assisting in the removal and preservation of the brain and sewing up the body afterward.
After that, we had only to call the mortician, wash the body and the metal table, disposing of any discarded organ parts, and sweep and mop the floor, and call the mortician. Sometimes we would have to put the body back in the refrigerator that separated the two rooms, and sometimes we would have to get a body out from the refrigerator onto the dissecting table, an awkward task when working alone.
After two weeks of on-the-job training with Howie, I worked alone on nights and weekends. Getting “call” pay was nice when an autopsy wasn’t needed, and even when called in, I had plenty of down time between autopsies and waiting for morticians. I remember completing “War and Peace” while at the morgue office desk, and feeling quite sorry when my escape to nineteenth century Russia ended.
I learned a little about death through a word progression that starts with body. As in my body, your body, everybody, anybody, nobody. Dead body.
A body is brought to the morgue where it becomes something else: a corpse. A corpse isn’t a body, it isn’t anybody, it isn’t even nobody. It’s a corpse. It’s made up of tissue that used to be a body, even used to be a human body. But now it’s a corpse. It’s cold. Parts are washed down the drain. Bits and pieces can be placed in formaldehyde and sliced up and examined under a microscope, things you couldn’t do, wouldn’t do to a body, a human body. But you can do it to a corpse.
The mortician takes the corpse and sometimes transforms it into something that looks like a body. The transformation surprises us. We say, “Doesn’t she look natural?” because we don’t expect it; we know she’s a corpse.
Sometimes a generous person bequeathes their body to science and the progression from body to corpse takes one more step, the step to cadaver. Four years after Howie introduced me to the morgue, I met my first cadaver in the anatomy labs of medical school, only a few hundred yards away. Unlike the morgue, the anatomy lab was in a well-lit room with big windows on the top floor in the front of the building. Unlike the other students on their first day, I was not shocked.
I lasted three months as a diener. After a particularly busy weekend on call, including participating in the autopsies of a young woman and an infant, I had a nightmare. In the dream I realized that one of my close friends was dead (he was not in real life), and was greatly saddened by the loss. I ran into mutual friend after mutual friend, and at each encounter I would say, “Have you heard that Richard died?”
And each mutual friend would reply, “Why, no. Huh. That’s too bad.” Then they would go about doing whatever it was they had been doing before, and I would go to the next mutual friend and the same encounter would repeat itself.
As nightmares go, it doesn’t sound too frightening, and perhaps frightening is the wrong word. Mostly I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness that the life of such a bright, funny, and capable guy, someone who I had swum alongside on the high school swim team, and laughed with during those German classes, and survived alongside through fraternity hazing, could be dead and nobody mourned.
Early on the following Monday morning, Richard picked me up in his VW to give me a ride to the university. I kept stealing sideways glances at him, assuring myself that he was really alive, that this was reality, that the dream was only a dream. I thought about telling him about it, but somehow any conversation starting or ending with “I dreamed you were dead” didn’t seem likely to go well. But I mourned him in an odd and secret way. I mourned his mortality. I mourned that someday–hopefully in a far distant future–he would indeed be dead. So would I.
I had to step back from death. I had to quit being a diener. I had to learn to love and celebrate life before I could again deal with death. It would be a long time before I considered medicine as a career, and it would be a sober decision when I did.
I learned a little about death–that it is inevitable, can claim the very young and the very old and everyone in between, after either a long illness or a sudden accident. Mostly I learned that an unfathomable gulf exists between a dead body and a living human being.
As a scientist, I understand death. I understand each cell needs oxygen and nutrition, warmth and acid-base balance, protection from mechanical disruption and toxins. I understand that a complex organism like a human being requires, at every moment in every organ system, a critical mass of cells to escape death. It’s a delicate balance of environment and coordinated survival of individual cells. Of course the balance is doomed to fail. Systems tend toward entropy. Death is inevitable.
I don’t understand life. Two cells fuse, mix up their genetic codes, give instructions that allow their descendent cells to multiply and change and function as a self-supporting interconnected organism for many decades to follow. The statistical likelihood of this succeeding seems so low. System failure and death seem always to be the more likely outcome. But, somehow, organisms survive, the species survives. We re-produce; while one dies, another is born. Order comes out of chaos. Entropy is defied again. Quite rightly we speak of the “miracle of life.” Biological life is a miracle, but even more unfathomable is that biological life creates human consciousness. Sometimes we refer to this as “the divine spark.”
Divine seems like the right word. Emmanuel. God with us. God within us. God as literally flesh and blood.
I have had my hands on, even within, a human being when that body transforms into a corpse. Consciousness becomes unconscious. Motion stops. Tissue cools. A life ends. God leaves.
Somewhere “Life” goes on. Somewhere a child is born, somewhere someone falls in love, somewhere someone is rescued. But when it’s my hands on the body, or it’s a person I love, those things are hard to remember, even harder to believe, and I feel the tug of of despair and sorrow.
Unless I remember Emmanuel.
God did not make this universe as His video game which He watches from on high, and toys with the controllers when He’s not busy. He wrote, and continues to write, Himself into the script. He is willingly part of each and every one of us, each and every day. He gets down and dirty with us, gets tortured and even killed. The life of Jesus Christ was a historic event, but in some cosmic or mystical sense, that life is lived out in every moment in every day for eternity.
When a kid gets hit by a truck, Jesus gets hit by a truck. When Uncle Ole gets cancer, Jesus gets cancer. When Mom has her heart attack, Jesus has his heart attack. When my brother gets Parkinson’s Disease, Jesus gets Parkinson’s Disease. When he gets COVID pneumonia, Jesus gets COVID pneumonia.
God suffers with us and He dies with us. He weeps with us. He wept with Mary and Martha over Lazarus. When I weep over my brother, Jesus weeps.
But cold flesh does not get the last word. A body may become a corpse, and a corpse may become a cadaver, but when life leaves the body behind it can’t just evaporate. It is too miraculous, too divine.
God promises to wipe away every tear. Every one.
Then He promises something more. When Jesus rises from the dead, so does that kid who got hit by the truck. So does Uncle Ole, and Mom, and my brother. This is Emmanuel. This is God with us. To this Emmanuel, I am a willing servant.
So, Merry Christmas. Celebrate hope, celebrate Emmanuel. God be with you and within you, fellow servant.