I’ve lived my life among the graves.
My first graves belonged to pets. Most of them I did not dig. The cats were all buried by my Dad, but I knew where they were. Then our Rottweiler, Bud, died. He was a big, gentle puppy, and though I didn’t cry, I was sad to see him go. He died in a pit he had dug himself, and Dad buried him there. A few years later, our wolfdog, Kuma, died. We watched him coughing and panting for breath. This time, when we buried him, I helped. I raised a cinderblock as his gravestone. The house passed to another family, and now even that is gone.
Later, family died. Grandparents, great grandparents. Human beings I knew and loved. And when the funerals came, there were other headstones around them. Headstones with our name. Generations were buried there, in red clay or black soil, with thick, clingy grass growing over their graves. All that was left was grey stone and words that faded with time.
What is death?
I’ve been in most caves between Nacogdoches and Carlsbad. They’re all dark, cool, and wet. It’s like walking down the throat of a monster, a monster that breathes and moans. Sometimes the tour guides would turn off the lights, and we would sit there in absolute blackness. And in that blackness, we were silent.
But there is another kind of grave.
I’ve been to a war memorial. The soldier’s statue stood tall, armed as he was in life, eternally facing the enemy. Written in the sandstone is the story of that unit, how they stood in the gap as the rest retreated. They fought, many died, but they were victorious. Those men died protecting their homeland from invaders. It was a death they chose for themselves. A death with a purpose.
Today is Good Friday.
The Saxons liked to speak of Christ as a bold warrior, marching towards Golgotha, mounting the cross, staring death in the eyes. There is a sense in which that is true, and today’s Church would do good to remember that. But in a very real sense, that is not what happened all those centuries ago. No, he struggled and wept and sweated blood in Gethsemane. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani. He cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He was willing. He prayed in the garden knowing full well he would leave in enemy hands. He came to Jerusalem, knowing the Sanhedrin would see him die. He was born on this earth having ordained the rise of the Romans, having chosen the way in which they would crucify him. He was afraid, but he loved us more.
They beat him. They whipped him. The spit on him. They crowned him with thorns and robed him for a moment as they mocked him. Then they nailed him to rough wooden planks and hung him up, naked, for all to see. Finally, when he had died, they stabbed him in the side with a spear. Then, those who knew him removed him from the cross, wrapped him up in burial clothes, and placed him alone in a cave to rot.
I remember another death.
At Grace Bible Church, there was a playground covered in mulch, with rich soil beneath that. The trees there were oaks. Every now and then, acorns would fall everywhere. For a while we trampled on them, broke them open to see their innards, or threw them at each other. But every year there would come a time when the whole yard would sprout with little trees, barely as big as our child-sized hands. Teachers told us to pluck them up, but they had strong roots. Until my dying day, I will never forget all those acorns and how they sprouted into something so strong.
At the moment of Christ’s death, all turned dark, and the foundations of the earth shook. But something else happened. The curtain in the temple, a four-inch thick weight of deep, dark cloth, ripped in two. The way to the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, was opened. Saints, they say, emerged from their graves. Acorns have a way of sprouting.