From: Windows Into the Light
O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
God, you promise new birth in the midst of life and you offer light wherever I find my darkness. As you rise forth from the ashes, bring me with you along the pathway to a new hope and show me how to see my journey as an invitation to fullness in all that I encounter. Amen.
(Mary Magdalene and Mary go to the tomb and encounter Jesus)
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from Heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, Greetings! And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.
I’ll never forget burying Greg. I’d come to know her almost immediately upon accepting the call to serve the parish where she worshiped. A lifelong Episcopalian with family roots as far back as the state of Virginia, she was one of those parishioners who just exuded all things proper about our denomination. She sat upright with perfect posture in the pew. She sang old hymns and even simplified Anglican chant as if that were all she listened to. When she entered a room, others around her lit up like the sun piercing the clouds on a spring day. She attended many classes, contributed much discussion, arranged flowers from her garden for the altar, and did most anything asked of her at the parish.
She was also suffering from cancer. Years before, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery had carved out several years of cancer-free life for her. But by the time I arrived, the cancer had reappeared as shadows on her latest scan. As it had metastasized in several areas of her body, the prognosis wasn’t good. New treatment, some experimental, could delay the inevitable, but we all knew that Greg wouldn’t be with us very long. The cancer would take her from us some day. The real question was when.
As her pastor, I watched Greg and the disease. She amazed me with her never-failing courage and optimism. Unlike some of her friends who kept saying, God will heal her and take away this disease, Greg kept insisting that God had always been healing her and that cancer, whether it left her body or not, wouldn’t prevent God’s healing. She once told me, You know, Michael, God heals us no matter what happens to our bodies. As her priest, I didn’t have to remind her that it wasn’t her way, truth, and life. No, she already understood God’s faithfulness to her and Christ’s unrelenting love even in the midst of her cross.
As we all watched the disease progress, little clues along the way began to tell us what was really going on with Greg. She lost weight, had no appetite, and started to look far older than she was. But her attitude toward life and toward God never changed. If she ever doubted God’s faithfulness, I never heard it. I’m not sure if it was the fact that she accepted God’s faithfulness early in her life or whether she gave it to God through her disease. But whenever she had accepted God’s faithfulness in her life, by the time she was facing the last days of cancer she was singing, dancing, and praying the whole way. Cancer claimed a part of her journey, but she trusted that God had redeemed it.
So when I buried her, it was an occasion of grace and mercy for all. But none of us could have imagined what would happen the day we took Greg to her final resting place along the James River. Her family had built a beautiful home along the James in the seventeenth century, and although the house had passed to another owner, the family retained rights to the burial plot there. We arrived after our two-hour journey to the long drive, amidst oaks and poplars, winding its way to the beautiful house, a stately brick Georgian. After stopping there for a brief moment to check on the luncheon to be served after the service, we jumped back into the car and drove through the estate, with huge boxwoods framing our car as we journeyed down a narrow path. And then, as if straight out of a novel, a brick wall protruded from boxwood forming the family burial ground. With magnolias and azaleas all around, we walked into the hallowed space where Greg’s family had been buried for several hundred years.
Just to the right, in a well-lit spot, there was an opening in the earth. The resting place for Greg’s ashes was duly prepared and waiting. I took her urn to the stand beside the opening, covering it with a silk pall, and we waited for the guests to arrive. One by one on the hot August day, the people walked into the walled yard. And one by one, they came over to the pall to say something, to remember, to give thanks for this life well lived.
After a few people had gathered, a small yellow butterfly appeared. Winding its way through the people, it flitted all over the place, lighting on clothing or even someone’s head from time to time. It flew around us, just sort of hovering here and there, a beautiful and constant image of new life to us all.
I had buried many, many people. Many an urn, many a coffin, many a box had passed through my hands into the earth. Well, not exactly. Usually my hands touched the beautiful silk pall we used to cover up whatever we couldn’t bear to face. But Greg didn’t want it that way. She was the first person to ask me to stoop down to the earth and put the ashes themselves into the ground. No container. Nothing. Just ashes.
And so when all had gathered, we prayed, sang a song, and came to the committal. But this time around there was no acolyte to hold my prayer book. There was no urn or wooden box on a stand. Instead, I took my book, laid it on the ground, and knelt down to the earth before the hole so carefully dug. Staring directly into the ground, I slid the top of the box open and started to pour, ever so slowly, as the words began: In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister Greg, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The words rang within me. They seemed louder than usual, as if I were shouting to everyone, Dust to dust. Dust to dust. Dust to dust.
I continued to pour Greg’s ashes into the ground. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her; the Lord lift up his countenance upon her and give her peace. Shine upon her. Shine upon her dust. All of a sudden, staring into the earth, I saw so many people, their faces racing through my mind and soul: the first teenager I buried; William; my grandmother; Michael; so many others; and then, even my own self.
And at once, through the tears streaming down my face, I saw my own son Jack standing in that glorious church on that fateful Ash Wednesday, his little voice shouting, You’ve got William on your head. You’ve got William on your head. It was in that moment that God’s light shone brightly and all the windows into my soul opened.
And in my heart, all I could say was Alleluia. Alleluia. Thank God for three-year-old theologians.