We’d come prepared with our rakes, hoes, tools and scrub brushes to clear out the family cemetery. Looming before us in the clearing, the tombstones and graves were cloistered amid the trees. To me, we seemed like intruders in the hush that hung there.
My grandmother was the guide, calling the roll of those who lay there, reconnecting us to our kin. The small graves were the most compelling, as she shared that these little ones were victims of an influenza outbreak.
While the others hoed and raked, I lingered as she knelt with devotion with her scrub brush and directed me to pour into the tin bucket the concoction that would restore the tombs to their alabaster glory.
Gradually, with her efforts the inscribed text emblazoned there became legible and I read aloud its words: Behold you who pass by,
As I am now so you must be,
Prepare for death …
And follow me.
This memento mori (“remember that you will die”) is an inscription that dates back to pre-Christian times and serves to remind those who read it of the inevitability of death. On that spring day of my early youth it seemed unfathomable, but life would instruct me otherwise. Death would come.
That cemetery lesson regarding my own immortality would only be “owned” in the context of my faith journey and the sealing of my identity as one who lives as Easter people must live.
For Easter people, every Sunday is another Easter. We gather every Sabbath because Christ is risen and it is because he is risen that we worship and “move and have our being.”
Without Easter, every Sunday would be a memento mori – a remembrance of one who had lived and, like us, met death.
Easter people gather because all death has been conquered … not only death as in the end of our lives here, but the death of all the principalities and powers that would rob all of creation of hope and the promise of the everlasting.
So much of what we assume will last forever comes to an end. Long after the lilies have faded and lost their scent, the everlasting in Easter thrives and blossoms forth. The composer Natalie Sleeth gifted the church with her beautiful Hymn of Promise with the publishing of The United Methodist Hymnal in 1989. Composed during the terminal illness of her husband, Dr. Ronald Sleeth, the hymn beautifully illustrates why Easter is everlasting and why this is a more fitting inscription for Easter people:
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
I first heard the glorious hymn in the summer of 1990 sung by a choir of children’s voices at Lake Junaluska as we celebrated that Easter is everlasting. The hymn living in the voices of the children that beautiful summer day has never been forgotten and ever reminds me of the power and promise of Easter.
May all our Sundays be everlasting Easters!
The Rev. Bernard Mason is a retired supply pastor serving at Mann Memorial United Methodist Church in Augusta.