In his latest book, The Pastor, renowned author Eugene Peterson tells the story of visiting a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico with his wife, Jan. He writes:
One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave.
Jan said, “Oh, did one of the brothers just die?”
“No, that is for the next one.”
Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be “the next one.”
It sounds a touch morbid. Can you imagine an open grave near the front entrance to your local church or on the front lawn of your home?
We’re far more comfortable speaking about life than death. “Let’s live well” sells far better than “Let’s die well.” In a culture that does everything possible to delay, defer, and deny death, we’re uncomfortable with open graves and blunt reminders.
In our minds, death is cheated through healing. In God’s eyes, death is conquered at the resurrection. We feel victorious when the diagnosis comes back “all clear.” Christ declares victory when the outcome of death itself is reversed. We go to the brink and hope to pull back from the edge. Jesus takes us to the edge and beyond into a hope-fuelled eternity.
The sense of just being “the next one” feels fatalistic, impersonal, even fearful. We imagine lemmings hurtling pointlessly off a cliff. But the Father sees it so differently; so very differently. He looks down the road and “the next one” is “the next son” or “the next daughter” walking up the road to the old homestead—returning home for good.
The Benedictine open grave has symbolism at two levels. Yes, it is the grave that awaits us all. But it is also the open grave that can contain none of us.
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory [the promised resurrection] through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)
Because of Grace.