Through the generosity of some close friends, we’ve spent the past week in a Washington, DC, condo that looks out across the Tidal Basin and directly down the Mall with a perfect view of the Lincoln and Washington Memorials all the way to the Capital. As a result, this will be the first of two blogs on different themes from our nation’s capital.
On the Way to the Grave
One of my favorite places in Washington is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, deep beneath the nave of the National Cathedral. It is formed by the massive piers that support the Gloria in Excelsis Tower that rises 300 feet above the highest point of land in the District of Columbia. Twelve descending steps create the feeling of descending into the tomb while sensing the full weight and glory of the tower above.
Behind the altar, a mural by Jan Henrik De Rosen depicts Joseph leading the procession to the tomb. All the heads are shrouded or bowed except for one young man who helps carry the body and looks directly toward the congregation. Looking into his eyes, I often listen for what he is saying to or asking of us.
We made that same pilgrimage last weekend when we carried my mother’s ashes to the hillside cemetery in Clarion, Pennsylvania, where she lived most of her life and where many of the people she loved are buried. In an old tradition that isn’t practiced much any more, each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren added their shovel of dirt to her grave.
We then gathered with our extended family in the church where my brothers and I were baptized, confirmed, and from which I was sent into ministry.
Sooner or later, we all make that same journey. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, we carry the remains of our loved ones to the grave. But knowing the rest of the story, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope.” (I Thessalonians 4:13)
That truth was affirmed when I received a sympathy card from two faithful friends who are the same age as my mother. They ended their message with the words, “We know there’s more.”
Before he went to prison for his resistance to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his students to report the death of three friends. “Now they sleep with all the brothers who have gone before them, awaiting the great Easter Day of Resurrection. We see the cross, and we believe in the resurrection; we see death, and we believe in eternal life; we trace sorrow and separation, but we believe in an eternal joy and community.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 220)
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we face the stony silence of Joseph’s tomb in hope. We carry our loved ones the way we will one day be carried to the grave knowing that there’s more!
The Book of Common Prayer includes this prayer for Holy Saturday:
O God: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 283)
Awaiting the resurrection with hope,
P.S. Full disclosure, this blog is based on the Holy Saturday devotion in
Easter Earthquake, next year’s Lenten study for The Upper Room.