“No Headstone Required”
An Easter Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
I spend a good bit of time walking around in the Norfolk Town Cemetery. It was not always the case, but over the last two years, or so, I have become a much more frequent visitor.
In the beginning, I would go there once a year on Memorial Day. I would march down to the cemetery with the other “dignitaries” for the annual Memorial Day service. Naturally, I would also go to the cemetery on other occasions when I performed graveside and interment services.
A couple of years ago, our veterinarian told us that Sadie (our chocolate lab) was overweight, and really should lose a few pounds. You may recall that I was a bit overweight myself. So, instead of walking around the block, or up the hill to the MBTA commuter parking lot, Sadie and I would walk to the cemetery, walk a loop in the cemetery, and then walk back home. As we walked, we would see geese in the pond, a few turtles, and we even saw a couple of deer. It is peaceful in the cemetery.
Of course, I would also look at and read the headstones as we walked. I have been serving the church for nearly ten years, so many of the names on the headstones look familiar. I recognize the names of families that have lived here in town for generations. Naturally, in the span of ten years, I have performed a number of funerals, and obviously seeing the headstones of people whose lives we have remembered and celebrated always evokes certain emotions and brings back memories.
For those of you who do not know, I live in the parsonage; the big, white house next door. It is a wonderful old house built in the 1790s. I believe that the original deed for the house dates to 1795. The house was built by the Ware family, one of the Josiahs, (there were a lot of Josiah Wares), or one of his sons. The Wares lived in the house for about twenty years before selling it, or deeding it, to the Salmon Mann family.
I mention the provenance of the house because as I walk through the Norfolk Town Cemetery, I see the headstones for members of the Ware and Mann families. I always wonder which ones lived in the house. What was the house like when they lived there? What was the town like? Were they happy? What were they like?
I do know that the Wares and the Manns were relatively affluent families, but we all know that wealth does not equate with happiness.
Were they good people ... kind and generous people? It is impossible to tell from their simple headstones at the town cemetery.
Cemeteries were very different in first century Palestine. There were not rolling, grassy hills filled with family headstones and burial plots. The earth was rough and rocky; it still is. Burial chambers or tombs were carved into the bedrock, and were owned by the family that paid to have the tomb constructed. They were sealed up by rolling stones, or other temporary covers so that they could be reopened and reused.
We do not know exactly where the body of Jesus was laid to rest, but we can be sure that it was not anything like the Norfolk Town Cemetery. Scripture tells us that a man named Joseph of Arimathea gave the use of his tomb so that the Body of Jesus could be buried with dignity and respect.
The death and burial rites of the Hebrew people are very specific, and are centuries old. The body is laid to rest within twenty-four hours, then the family sits shiva (a period of mourning) for seven days. Sabbath Laws prevented family and loved ones from caring for the deceased until after Sabbath was broken. Jesus died just three hours before the Sabbath began, therefore Joseph of Arimathea likely laid his body to rest before the proper funeral arrangements had been carried out. Most scholars agree that Mary and Mary were on their way to the tomb at dawn to perform the funeral rites.
Clearly, the tomb in which Jesus was buried was not a family tomb, it was borrowed. But it would have been clear which tomb housed the body of Jesus ... it was the one with the two Roman guards standing sentry. No headstone or inscription was necessary. The guards helped reveal the location.
Of course, there may have been other recently deceased individuals that had been laid to rest in that area. Perhaps the Romans had placed guards at more than one tomb. So, if there had been any question as to which tomb held the body of their friend and teacher, the presence of the angel dressed in brilliant white raiment removed any confusion. Here was the spot where Jesus was laid to rest.
Now, in my time spent in cemeteries, I have seen military personnel on numerous occasions. I have performed a number of funerals with military honors. However, those service men and women are there to honor the dead, not to prevent rabble rousers from stealing the body.
But, with the exception of carved stone or poured concrete cherubim, I have never seen angels in brilliant raiment at any cemetery that I have visited. That was a unique and powerful moment reserved for Mary and Mary.
We can picture the scene in our heads, but we cannot fully appreciate what they were feeling on that morning. Lost in swirling emotions, the two women went to the tomb. Just a week earlier, people had been cheering for Jesus, waving palms branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” ... “Save us!” And then, within just a matter of days, the crowd turned. The Temple authorities had turned the crowd against Jesus; they called for him to be crucified! The one who they had proclaimed as savior, was sentenced to die in the ugliest and most horrific fashion.
With those memories fresh in their hearts and minds, Mary and Mary went to the tomb. As much as the crowd had demeaned and degraded Jesus, they would anoint his body, they would wrap him in love. With broken hearts and teary eyes, they made their way to the tomb to make the arrangements, perform the burial rites, and to say goodbye.
Their world had been turned upside down or torn in two, but as they approached the tomb, their worlds would be shaken again! The ground shook like an earthquake as an angel appeared and rolled the stone away. He told them news that they desperately wanted to believe but that could not possibly be true. Even though Jesus had told the disciples that he would be raised after three days, it seemed as though it as too much to hope for. But then again, nothing was impossible for Jesus!
They hurried back toward the others afraid, confused, overjoyed. Where would they start? With the earthquake? Or the angel? Or would they jump right to the news ... “He is risen!”
And then as Jesus always does in our moments of need, he appeared to Mary and Mary. “Greetings. Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there.”
“Greetings. Do not be afraid. I give you my peace. Tell the others to go to Galilee, where it all began, and I will meet them there.”
What a morning for Mary and Mary! The day began with weeping and mourning, then there was an earthquake, an angel, two Roman soldiers that fell over as if dead. There was the AMAZING NEWS from the angel that Jesus had risen just like he said he would! Then there were the instructions from the angel ... go and tell the others!
But wait ... they saw Jesus! The clasped their arms onto him! He spoke to them! They felt the power in his words, and the comfort of his peace! It was just as the angel had said ... they had seen him and touched him ... Jesus is alive!!
There would be no need for a headstone or an inscription indicating where Jesus’ body was laid to rest. Jesus’ slumber was over! He broke down the barrier between life and death; he conquered death once and for all, and proclaimed that love would rein! Jesus was alive! Jesus is alive!
Jesus lives in the heavenly realm seated at the right hand of God. And he lives in you! He lives in me. He lives in the ways that we interact with one another and with our world. He lives in our acts of loving kindness and compassion. He lives in our fight for justice. He lives in our service to those in our communities that are sick, or hungry, or homeless.
Jesus Christ is alive! And we have the awesome responsibility to tell the others! Just like Mary and Mary, and the other disciples, we carry on the mission of Jesus Christ! The tomb is empty and we carry the light of his love and spirit. We carry the message of grace and salvation. Christ is risen! Risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.