The Longest Saturday
Younger Alice remembers a church service a week later, when the congregation sang lines by William Cowper that still make her shiver: "When this poor lisping, stammering tongue / Lies silent in the grave."
I did not see my mother the day she died, though I received the notifying call and relayed the news. Two sisters, with Dad, got to the nursing home before the mortician. At Mother's bedside they sat or paced half an hour, trying to assimilate the news. She was talkative and bright just yesterday. What happened? Finally they asked Dad if he wanted some time alone with Mother, before leaving. "No," he answered, looking at her warm but lifeless form. "She isn't here." Her breath is gone. This is just a shell.
After Mother's graveside service, Dad and I, both spouseless, stepped away from the crowd for several minutes, surveying the landscape. He'd intended for Mom's grave to be on the left rather than the right, but he hadn't thought to tell anyone, and what difference did it make now? "But look, right here …. There'll be a place for you."
I nodded a noncommittal thank you and didn't think much about it until we were at the cemetery a year later, when all we mourners arrived half an hour before the hearse carrying Dad's body. While we waited, my niece's three-year-old having received an age-appropriate explanation of cemetery markers came around tugging on skirts. "Which little house is yours?" he asked before running off, making circles around one headstone, then another. Which house? Is my name written there? Here? Where?
As the hearse stopped, turned left, and drove under the wrought-iron arch, I remembered a cryptic conversation Dad and I had with Mother one evening in the nursing home. She'd been to an afternoon church service. "What was the sermon about?" I asked.
She'd listened well enough to catch a sound-bite. "Jesus is going to take a trip."
We probed for clarity. "What?"
She repeated her one line, satisfied that she'd answered our question.
Dad frowned his incomprehension.
"With his disciples?" I asked.
"To prepare a place."
We laughed, but not out loud. John 14: "In my Father's house are many mansions … . I go to prepare a place for you … . I will come again, and receive you unto myself."
I have returned several times to the cemetery, to water flowers and pull weeds from around the rose of Sharon my sisters planted, a long-flowering bush Dad had wished for and thought to tell someone. The headstone is complete, death dates etched in. Everyone assumes I'll claim one of the extra plots, though I remain uncommitted, hesitant to see myself buried, there, here, anywhere.
In his Gospel, Luke quotes Jesus, near death, promising a fellow cross-hanger that they would that very day meet each other in paradise. On this commemoration of that Friday crucifixion, I claim his stated principle in spirit, for my spirit. Jesus went to prepare a place that is now ready to receive the breath that is uniquely mine, the breath that is unique to each of God's people.
But the flesh, I know, must wait through the grave disintegration that troubled early Christians so much that stories arose of Mary's dead but warm body being angel-whisked to heaven. "The symbol of purity itself could not be given to the worms for pasture; the image of eternal spring could not rot in the grave."2 It was easier to believe in divine intervention than to imagine the physical putrification of such a perfect shell.
Flesh to dust. Low in the grave, through Friday and then the longest Saturday to the end of the age. Waiting the coming day of transformation, when dry bones and ashes will be redeemed and gathered to a brighter, wider Sunday place, beyond a grander gate.
Late in the evening of this Friday called Good, I open one sympathy card I've kept. When Mother died, a friend sent it, including a paragraph by Frederick Buechner, revised with gender-appropriate pronouns. Defining "immortality" in his book Wishful Thinking, he notes the creedal importance of a bodily resurrection:
What God … . prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made her the particular human being she was and which she needs something like a body to express; her personality, the way she looked, the sound of her voice, her peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense her face.3
Her forehead, her lips, her eyes.
As I go to bed on this dark Friday night, I will seed my dreams with the ancient poetry of Job 19:26-27:
After my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes I, and not another.
And then mutter the last revelatory words of John the Divine, anticipating Jesus' next dramatic trip: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20).
1. Joe Ashby Porter, "Roof Work," in Lithuania (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990). Reprinted in Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).
2. Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Quartet Books, 1978), p. 82.
3. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 42-43.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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