HOLY WEEK: The first in the annual Holy Week series from the Pray Channel. By Stephen Williams
I was five when I first encountered the sting of death. Perhaps fittingly, it was the middle of winter 1994 when I stood beside my grandfather’s hospital bed for the final time, and though winter in the Mississippi Delta never means much in the way of actual cold, the farmland that dominates the region was still stark and barren, as were the few trees that divided one field from another. I couldn’t have verbalized it at the time, but somehow I recognized that the deadness of the land and the seemingly endless cloudy weather were the natural world’s reflection of the same season in the life of my grieving family.
We had known that the end was coming – the cancer had been merciless, but not so merciless so as to prevent us from making the trek from Virginia in time to say goodbye. I remember bracing my young heart for whatever this goodbye would entail, unsure of just how serious this matter of death was, but at the same time astonishingly aware that it was the most serious of all the things I had ever encountered. Fresh out of the blissful ignorance of toddlerhood, I was suddenly confronted with the heaviest of all realities, one that I knew demanded my attention, regardless of my limited ability to plumb its depth.
My grandfather was a good man of quiet faith and just shy of sixty-five at his passing. A former lumber expert and ever the wizard with just about any tool, he was known throughout the town of Cleveland for the excellence of his work and the selflessness of his work ethic. It was only the previous summer that he had been answering my endless questions about his magical workshop and had indulged my fascination with lawn equipment by driving me around the yard a thousand times on the tractor. He had even improvised a tiny swimming pool for me and my sister, filling his old wheelbarrow with heaven knows how many gallons of water so cold you could almost feel its sweetness in the hot Delta sun.
Six months later, these memories were far too fresh for my youth to turn this goodbye into an ignorance-driven formality. I was experiencing a far different coldness now, even though I was often held away from the center of the family’s quiet discussions and even from much of the mourning that preceded my grandfather’s death. The chill of mortality, though not overwhelming, had nonetheless entered my consciousness at last, never to leave me while I myself still live.
Yet I do not remember those two weeks for their coldness alone – far from it. Their memory also recalls a warmth as inescapable as death’s chill. For though they commenced the wrestling match with the ache of death, they also brought me face to face with the warmth of the Resurrection – my first discovery of the existence of hope. And this hope sprang forth from such a seemingly small source – so small that in retrospect I marvel at the monumental role it played in shaping my newfound awareness of pain and sorrow.
Throughout the entirety of our time in Mississippi, my mother played an album of hymns sung by our family’s favorite tenor. She must have flipped that cassette on two or three dozen occasions, its tender and triumphant melodies providing a fleeting but precious comfort for our spirits. But one song had the greatest effect on me, building the very beginning of a framework for considering the paradox of death and life presented by the Gospel. Again and again, the verses of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” pounded their way into my memory through all the events of those weeks, even as I listened helplessly to the sound of my mother’s tears and even more helplessly to my grandfather’s gasps for breath. The hymn rang in my ear on the way to the hospital for the final time, “Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!” And then on the way to the burial, “Death in vain forbids Him rise! Alleluia!” And then, finally, leaving the cemetery at last and already looking forward to ultimate end of all our mourning, “Made like Him, like Him we rise! Alleluia!”
To this day I am unable to sing the hymn without thinking of my grandfather’s passing, and I cannot think of my grandfather’s passing without reflecting on the Resurrection. At first glance, it seems a strange thing that these disparate events would be so inextricably linked in my mind, but the years since have revealed that though the linkage is something of a cosmic mystery, it is not strange because the events are not disparate. The truth that I encountered all those years ago was this: that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were two parts to the same great miracle, a miracle by which death, previously that most awful of earthly realities, somehow became the key to Life everlasting, first for Christ, and then for His Bride.
Death had to have its day in order for Life to have its eternity. The Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with our family’s grief, first shouldered the Cross of my grandfather’s sin so that in the Resurrection He might fold up my grandfather’s grave clothes and lay them beside His own. And thus my grandfather’s earthly passing, far from being a fearful step into an endless night, was instead a leap into the brightest of all mornings.
Stephen Williams is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and lives in Roanoke, VA.