The Comfort of a Reasonable Religion

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40) The […]

Jeff Hual / 4.11.19

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)

The Parish which I serve as Rector is blessed with two campuses, both of which have historic cemeteries. What strikes me every time I walk among the stones in either location is the sheer volume of immense personal tragedy contained in both churchyards: whole families united in death, sometimes in the same year, most likely by epidemics, or privations, sometimes even war (one churchyard dates to 1730, the other to 1861). Long after these personal tragedies have passed from any living memory, the stones themselves stand as silent sentries, quietly shouting these tales of tragedy and impasse.

As I prepare for Holy Week, one stone in particular has struck my imagination. It is one that I see often, as it is just outside the window by the pulpit in our 1730 church. It is a grave containing the family of our twenty-first Rector, the Rev’d James Young. Buried there are his wife and two of his children, all of whom died between December 1852 and August 1853, a clue pointing to some common malady that took the family. The Rev’d Young buried them together, then understandably left our Parish.

What strikes me about this stone above all others, though, is its epitaph. I’m sure it must have been personally chosen by the Rev’d Young in memory of his wife. Here’s what this particular stone is crying out:

In memory of Frances Eloise, Wife of Rev. James Young, who died in the comfort of a reasonable religion and holy hope.

Isn’t that what we seek each year in Holy Week? Isn’t it for this that we yearn as we walk through the events of the last week of Jesus’ life on Earth? The comfort of a reasonable religion and a holy hope sounds pretty good to me. It’s what I’m looking for this year. It’s what I hope to find at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday, what I hope will greet me at the mouth of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. And it’s interesting to me to see such a wonderful thought coming from a gravestone, because it can’t help but remind us of one of the ironies of the Christian life, the fact that Christianity is not first and foremost about the kind of life we lead, though that’s part of it.

Death is actually the starting point for Christian belief. That may sound like one of the most unreasonable statements for a reasonable religion to make, but that is nevertheless what we believe. Out of death, the Christian life is born. Because of Christ’s death, our deaths have been forever changed, such that although we die, yet at the same time we live.

Perhaps that’s why Christ’s death had to be one of the most horrific deaths imaginable. Our word, excruciating, comes from the Latin excrucio, which literally means pain like that which comes “out of the cross.” If it was going to bring about eternal life for the world, then it had to be a death to end all deaths. Again, that may sound unreasonable in terms of religion, but then we remember the Lenten journey that we took this year, and the constant reminders we were given that we could never have attained salvation on our own, such that it has to come from outside of ourselves. And then we remember, that God alone could die the death that saved us, that God alone could defeat death, and suddenly it all makes sense.

Because it is by this humble death of a royal king that we are forever saved from trying to earn a way out of death on our own. The debt is forever paid. And the unreasonableness that is forever banished turns out to be our vain belief that we could have ever done this on our own. Our holy hope becomes forever linked to the fact that in Christ we have died and in Christ we now live. It is this that we commemorate as we walk through this final week of Jesus’ life. It is this that we remember on Maundy Thursday, as his friends desert him without so much as a goodbye. It is this that we remember on Good Friday, as he hangs blameless on what is really our Cross. It is this that we celebrate as we sit holy Vigil Saturday night, awaiting his arrival as our risen Lord.

These are holy mysteries that we commemorate and celebrate in this coming Holy Week. As unreasonable as it all may sound, this turns out to be the most reasonable answer possible, really the only answer possible. It is not just a holy hope. It is our only hope!