Today is the Feast of All Saints for Orthodox Christians. (Some of my funny Orthodox friends like to joke that last night was Orthodox Halloween.) One of the primary hymns for this feast (the kontakion, sung repeatedly in services this morning) starts out with these lines: “The universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation to You, O Lord and Creator.”
What does it mean for the universe to offer something to God? And what does it mean for the first fruits of creation to be the God-bearing martyrs?
This hymn preserves an understanding of the universe that we see in one of the first Christian martyrs, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a famous series of letters on his journey to Rome to die. Along the way to his final destination, Saint Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Rome saying, “When I shall have arrived there, I shall be a human being [ekei paragenomenos anthrōpos esomai]. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God” (Letter to the Romans 6). This translation is as cited by Fr. John Behr in “From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human” in The Wheel, 2018. In this same article, Fr. John Behr says of this passage that, as Ignatius approaches Rome, he clearly thinks of himself as “not yet born, not yet living, not yet human; only by his martyrdom, in imitation of Christ, will he be born into life as a human being.” Where I lived last in York, PA, I once got to hear Fr. John Behr speak in person about St. Ignatius and his martyrdom. It was powerful to hear him speak of how Christ created the world from the cross, speaking the final words of God in the creation of the world and finishing chapter one of Genesis when He said from the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus Christ was the first human being, the first one to show us the perfect image of God given to Adam but immediately obscured by the human fall. St. Ignatius understood this and was eager to be created by his Savior, Jesus Christ, as a full and mature human being. To be fully shaped by Jesus Christ as a fellow image-bearer of God, St. Ignatius carried his own cross to the point of death in Rome where he was fully united to Christ in his own death.
To understand this hymn about the martyrs as the first fruits of creation, we must turn to another letter to the church in Rome, this one by the Apostle Paul (8.19-22): “For the earnest expectation of creation anxiously awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was made subordinate to pointlessness, not willingly but because of the one who subordinated it, in the hope that creation itself will also be liberated from decay into the freedom of the glory of God’s children. For we know that all creation groans together and labors together in birth pangs, up to this moment.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) Here we have all of creation waiting for the children of God to be revealed in glory. All of creation is described as still in the process of being born into the true life of God that Jesus Christ enters into when He conquers death, the life that each martyr enters into as they join Christ. This is indeed a picture where “the universe offers” up to God “the martyrs as the first fruits of creation.” We are used to thinking of creation as happening in the past. However, in this hymn, as well as in the letters from Paul and Ignatius, creation his happening right now, happening as we join Christ in his creative work on the cross, declaring, “It is finished.”
Of course, this language comes from all over the holy scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-26, Paul writes: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life and each in the proper order: the Anointed as the firstfruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival, then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) All of cosmic history, as we know it, is given over to death and the entire universe suffers with one voice; it “groans together and labors together in birth pangs” until it has given birth to the first human beings: Jesus Christ and his martyrs. These are “the first fruits of creation” as we sang this morning.
As Danny watched, the light reddened and warmed in the sky. The last of the stars disappeared. Above him, on both sides of the hollow, the wet leaves of the treetops began to shine among the fading strands and shelves of mist. Eastward, the mist took a stain of pink from the rising sun and glowed. And Danny felt a happiness that he knew was not his at all, that did not exist because he felt it but because it was here and he had returned to it.
“Fidelity” by Wendell Berry
We followed the state road along the ridges toward Port William and then at the edge of town turned down the Sand Ripple Road. We went down the hill through the woods, and as we came near the floor of the valley, Elton went more carefully and we began to watch. We crossed a little board culvert that rattled under the wheels, eased around a bend, and there was the backwater, the headlights glancing off it into the treetops, the road disappearing into it.
Elton stopped the truck. He turned off his headlights and the engine, and the quietness of the moonlight and the woods came down around us. I could hear the peepers again. It was wonderful what the road going under the water did to that place. It was not only that we could not go where we were used to going; it was as if a thought that we were used to thinking could not be thought. “Listen!” Elton said. He had heard a barred owl off in the woods. He quietly rolled the window down.
…Once we had climbed the bank and stepped over the fence and were walking among the big trees, we seemed already miles from the truck. The water gleamed over the bottomlands below us on our right; you could not see that there had ever been a road in that place. I followed Elton along the slope through the trees. Neither of us thought to use a flashlight, though we each had one, nor did we talk. The moon gave plenty of light. We could see everything—underfoot the blooms of twin-leaf, bloodroot, rue anemone, the little stars of spring beauties, and overhead the littlest branches, even the blooms on the sugar maples. The ground was soft from the rain, and we hardly made a sound. The flowers around us seemed to float in the shadows so that we walked like waders among stars, uncertain how far down to put our feet. And over the broad shine of the backwater, the calling of the peepers rose like another ﬂood, higher than the water ﬂood, and thrilled and trembled in the air.
…It was a long walk because we had to go around the inlets of the backwater that lay in every swag and hollow. Way off, now and again, we could hear the owls. Once we startled a deer and stood still whﬂe it plunged away into the shadows. And always we were walking among flowers. I wanted to keep thinking that they were like stars, but after a while I could not think so. They were not like stars. They did not have that hard, distant glitter. And yet in their pale, peaceful way, they shone. They collected their little share of light and gave it back. Now and then, when we came to an especially thick patch of them, Elton would point. Or he would raise his hand and we would stop a minute and listen to the owls.
Arguably, our mothers connect us to each other, to this life and to this world more profoundly than any other thing or person. At any rate, the sense of being uprooted in the wind or unmoored and adrift at sea has been one strong element of my own experience with the loss of my mother two years ago and now also with the loss of my second mother, Ann, who came to me as a mother through my wife, Elizabeth. This world’s bleakness and harsh realities can take on a vivid and all pervasive presence in the void left behind by the absence of a mother.
I’m torn between describing something of the experience of loss and describing Ann. Now that both my wife and I are motherless in this life, I’m freshly convinced that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. Most of the time, during most of our lives, we do not know that we are lost. When mothers are present for their children, mothers are one of the greatest shields that exist against this sense of being lost. However, a truly wise and good mother will not shield her child entirely or forever. It is critical that we learn how vulnerable, helpless and lost we are in this life. I’ve struggled with many profound weaknesses and failures in my own life, but one of them is not (I’m grateful) depression. I’m sure that much of what I think about the value of recognizing how lost I am is particular to me, will be unhelpful to others and is highly problematic even for myself. However, what I sense is that all of my fellow humans, all of our fellow living creatures and this entire cosmos that sustains us all is profoundly lost. We are lost people within a lost universe, and all of our best stories tell us this loudly and clearly. My recent loss of my two mothers has clarified this for me, driven it home.
I said in the last paragraph that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. The second of these two realities—the less obvious one—is that we have a home before and beyond this world. This entire lost world came from somewhere that it belonged to and will only be healed when it is once again united with this other place. I don’t have images or words to describe what I mean by this home or even what I mean by being lost and separated from this home, but I can say that being entirely motherless now in this latter part of my life has left me more fully aware of these two realities, more fully than I was before. This is, I suspect, a bitter gift. It is also a gift that I owe—to a large extent—to both of my departed mothers. They both knew these twin realities.
But these large realities are beyond my powers to describe. Happily, if I turn to Ann herself, her own life will point toward these realities more clearly than any further words of mine. There is no better way to see the whole universe and its Creator than to look closely at what we have surrounding us each day. Emily “Ann” Stocker (née Gilman), left a treasure trove of such examples behind her for those of us still making our ways through this life. Ann, although constantly in motion and full of exuberance, was a woman who paid the closest attention to all that surrounded her. Her burial service in an old cemetery on the mountainous border between Maine and New Hampshire brought together a crowd of people. They came from many hours in several directions and over miles of rural roads to stand on a hillside together beside her grave.
Ann came from several older Chatham and Stow families on the side of her mother Ruth. On the side of her father Gordon, Ann came from less settled folk. Gordon’s mother was French Canadian, and he had been raised by several deeply devout Catholic women after he lost his mother early in life. Gordon’s father called many places home but had settled long enough in Stow, Maine at one point to set up his young adult son with a small farmstead. They got started with hens and honey bees before Gordon was left alone with his plot of land and livestock. This was more than enough for Gordon, however. He married Ruth, the daughter of a local dairy farmer, and they raised a family there with plenty to provide for them between their long hen houses as well as their bees, sheep and expansive gardens.
Of Gordon’s decision to make this life with Ruth, she herself gives this account in a few verses written before their marriage (signing it “by Ruth Sarah”):
Do you remember last Saturday night After the bees and chicks were put to bed And we had so very hurriedly put out the light And the smell of spring; had entered our head.
When we travelled to Fryeburg to the movies With Hilda and Fred by our sides And were thinking all evening like all lovers That we must let our consciences be our guides.
However, you cuddled and squeezed my hand, And kept my mind in a whirl ‘Till I thought you the nicest man in the land And I a fortunate girl.
At last the movies were over And away we started for home Thinking that we would never Another Saturday night roam.
We’d sit at home in the parlor Without any Hilda or Fred And patiently wait for the hour When all would be going to bed.
The first thing we knew it was morning And father called down from above Why waste all this time on courting There is no such thing as love
So you jumped into your Plymouth And started home to your chicks And made up your mind forever You would keep yourself in the sticks.
Although never moving back to her childhood home as an adult, Ann told vivid stories throughout her life of the country surrounding Stow and Chatham. Ann remained close to extended family in the area and took her children and grandchildren back to visit the beautiful rivers, mountains and homesteads of her childhood. These places certainly lived in her heart.
She took us up Baldface and to Emerald Pool. When she showed us where her mother was buried, she pointed out Eastman Mountain and the name Eastman on many of the headstones. Ann’s maternal great-grandmother was Sarah (Eastman) McKeen, the mother of Glenora McKeen Hanscom. Eastman Mountain is named after the family of an early settler to the region—Asa Eastman or his father Jonathan. Asa was born in Concord in 1770 of Jonathan and Mary, married in Concord to Polly Kimball in 1795. Asa and Polly were the parents of at least 4 sons and 3 daughters, and Asa was buried in Chatham in 1818. Although the Eastman family of Sarah (Eastman) McKeen is distantly related to that of Asa Eastman (with Asa and Sarah being fourth cousins, twice removed), Sarah’s family came to Chatham much later. Sarah was the daughter of Lorenzo Eastman, born 1808 in Bartlett, New Hampshire. Lorenzo’s son Loren Eastman settled on Butter Hill Road in Chatham in the 1870s, and Lorenzo came and lived with Loren in his old age. Sarah would likely have come to the Chatham area around the same time as her brother Loren.
Ann clearly felt this sense of generational rootedness in the place where she grew up walking down the road from her father’s farm to attend a one-room schoolhouse. Sale of eggs were a staple source of income for the family, and Ann remembered fondly the sound of sanding eggs to clean them as well as the cooing of hundreds of hens at once while they settled down for the night in their large and well-kept hen houses. Among his many labors, Gordon had to regularly defend his honey bees from bears. Ann remembered her father rushing out the door once without any gun and charging straight at a bear that he sent fleeing into the woods. There were endless stories about Gordon in action. Like his daughter after him, Gordon was always in motion and responded to any need around him with an immediacy that often left others struggling to catch up. Gordon was also a singer, and Ann remembers his voice carrying clearly through the thick walls of farm buildings and across their wide pastures as he worked. Ann also had a beautiful singing voice. As a graduate of Fryeburg Academy, she loved the opportunity to sing with their choir, mentioning in particular what a joy it was to participate in Handel’s Messiah. All of those in the church where she served and worshipped for the last several decades of her life spoke of the blessing of singing with her.
As a teenager, Ann loved to catch a ride with friends to climb Baldface and to jump into Emerald Pool on the way back down. She remained a hiker and walker long past the point when physical disability would have stopped most people. As a young girl, she recalled packing lunches to wander alone—following the tops of old stone walls through the forest as far as she could without touching the ground and stopping only to enjoy her solitary picnic.
Attending the University of Maine Orono, Ann studied English and made lifelong friends. She also became an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ in college, having grown up with the quiet Catholicism of her father and the old New England pragmatism of her mother. There is even a story that she witnessed to her fellow English student Stephen King. Ann met and married Richard “Rick” Stocker in a Bible study that Rick was attending while living in the Twitchell Hill commune of Montville, Maine. Joining the Bible study group, Rick and Ann ended up teaching in a school together that was attached to the community. They wanted to get married and needed the blessing of their community. A prophet sought a vision and confirmed their plans to marry with a vision of two pigs eating from the same trough. Bear meat was served at their wedding. Early in their marriage, Rick came to love the verse in Proverbs saying that “whoso finds a wife finds a good thing.” Rick called Ann his Good Thing, and Ann playfully called him Whoso in return.
Ann lost her mother Ruth to cancer shortly after her marriage to Rick. Ultimately, this community took them far from family to Pink Mountain, British Columbia where Rick built the log cabin in which their second child (my dear wife) was born. They eventually joined a few other families who recognized the community as a cult and undertook the difficult journey of leaving and returning home. Ann and Rick worked hard to reestablish lives in Maine, where they had a third child, joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and raised their family. Rick eventually earned a living as a Maine state investigator and Ann as a supervisor and director within the regional HeadStart program.
When I first met Ann, I couldn’t believe what I had found. I was wearing a jaunty tweed cap that I’d picked up at a Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, and I was very much smitten with her daughter Elizabeth. Ann complimented me on my cap as I recall, and only a few minutes was all it took to see that this was a delightful and formidable lady. When my brother and I made a visit to the Stocker home in Monmouth, Maine a few years later, I was left with a vivid impression of life and goodness amid their sprawling vegetable gardens and the laughter around their breakfast table. Laughter was a staple in this home where I was eventually blessed to call Ann Mom. She loved to laugh at herself for years over her realization part way into one of my first meals in her home that she was serving me a fish for dinner that shared my name—Hake.
Mom enriched and sustained my own love of life in every time that I got to spend with her. Since her loss, I’ve stopped my car a few times to listen to the spring peepers whose evening song she loved so much and which she always noticed again on the first evening of its return each spring. Over the years, mom and I would spar over the names of trees and flowers up and down the east coast from the Carolinas to Maine. She was always alert, observing and sharing.
Her wealth of stories and life experiences came from her generosity and joy. In virtually each of the many historic places and museums that I fondly remember visiting with her—from the Biltmore Estate and Colonial Williamsburg to the Norlands Living History Center and Popham Colony—I can remember Mom exclaiming over one after another of the household devices from colonial and earlier American homes as items that she remembered using during her own years growing up in Stow, Maine or living under the Northern Lights in British Columbia.
Mom could also describe people with such love and delight in their every character trait and feature. With all of her colorful and lively love of life and outspoken energy, in the end, however, what I will carry most closely was Ann’s tireless service to others and her delight in the small details of daily life. At her graveside service, many people testified to her extraordinary love for children and her ability to meet them and enjoy them each for who they were. Later in life, Ann’s father remarried, and Ann spent months traveling to Arizona where she loved her new branch of extended family and where she loved to help with the care for her new mother even after her father’s death. Ann cared for all people with a kind of fierceness and cheerful delight, and she tended tirelessly to their every need. This can only have flowed from a selfless love.
Her love for people ran deep, and I’m sure she would have wanted it noted that her love for others was the grace of God at work in her. In this topsy-turvy world, it was always God to whom she clung with a fierce hope and an infectious gratitude. She knew we were all lost but she also knew that everything can point us back toward home.
Photos below are of the poem by Ann’s mother before her marriage and some of the rock walls around the farm where Ann grew up (the ones that she walked as a girl).
Jesus Christ identifies himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s a confident and bold claim, but it is one that Jesus has worked toward carefully with many bold decisions and words leading up to it. Among the most astounding of these is Christ’s decision to wait for his beloved friend Lazarus to die before responding to the pleas of Mary and Martha that Jesus come to save their brother from death. We face a dramatic series of twists and turns leading up to the moment when Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb despite the worrying of some witness of that Lazarus would stink. We learn, memorably, that Jesus wept (John 11:35) in response to the weeping of Mary and those with her as she confronted Christ and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32).
Why does Jesus Christ use his beloved friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to demonstrate his power over death? It is difficult to reach any other conclusion from the story than that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Jesus Christ “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (4). Ultimately, this question goes back to the question of why God creates the world. Scripture teaches that we are still children who await, and who also have collectively resisted, our full formation (as well as the final formation of our entire cosmos). Our experience of death is a merciful and also terrible result of this resistance by us to our own creation. God enters the story of struggle that we have initiated by our rebellion as the human Jesus Christ. By entering the story of death fully, Jesus reveals death’s own impermanence and final defeat entirely from within our current and incomplete story of death. We encounter life itself in Jesus Christ. These topics, however, take us too far from the story of Lazarus.
Lest we be tempted to think this a crass, calculated and unfeeling act on Christ’s part, we are told repeatedly that these three were loved by Jesus. The two sisters first send word to Christ that “he whom you love is ill” (3). Then John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (5). Finally, when Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (33) and then wept himself, the crowd of witnesses cries out, “See how he loved him!” (36). Despite all of these reassurances, we may still be tempted to wonder at Christ’s calculated waiting at the start of the narrative.
What is at work, however, is not a lack of feeling but a demonstration of perspective and power. Jesus Christ is not impressed or moved by death, but Christ’s awesome power does not at all prevent him from being deeply moved by love and by compassion for the suffering of others. This lordly disregard for death itself does not prevent Jesus from suffering with his friends or with each of us. We tend to associate a calculated display of power with a cold indifference because we have hearts that are not capable of combining lordly power and deep compassion. Jesus Christ, however, was fully in possession of both. He is—as the hymns of this seasons remind us over and over—”the only lover of humankind” but also the the Lord who intentionally despoils death itself in the most flagrant way in preparation for his own upcoming death and resurrection. Another hymn from this evening taunts death directly as we sing, “Through Lazarus, O death, Christ has already despoiled you.”
Nothing gets easier after the powerful command from Jesus Christ to a long-dead corpse: “Lazarus, come out!” We have one last intimate glimpse into this scene as the dead man obeys and stands helplessly bound up and blinded before the crowd. Lazarus is able to walk out of his grave but unable to remove the cloth that covers his own face. Christ tells them to set Lazarus free, but the story does not pause for any rest or celebration. It moves immediately into meeting of the Sanhedrin who decide that this teacher has gone too far and must die. Lazarus is dramatically rescued from death itself, but Jesus has sealed his own fate at the hands of the worldly powers surrounding him. From this point on in the story, every movement that Jesus makes is watched, and there are only a few days left before the final countermove comes with the help of one in Christ’s own inner circle.
This dramatic tension extended to the friends and followers of Jesus Christ as well. Tradition tells us that the Sanhedrin not only decided that Christ must die but that Lazarus must be killed as well. According to widespread accounts from the earliest days of the church, Lazarus had to flee from his home to save his own life, and Lazarus spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Cyprus.
We might say that all this power and triumph by Jesus does no earthly good in this case. However, the victory is so complete precisely because it comes from within. We ourselves know sin and death from the inside, but Christ joins us there and still reveals to us that only life has any true power. In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart makes the case that the followers of Jesus Christ should learn to have a similar enmity for death and evil:
We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.
This is why so many of the hymns for Lazarus Saturday and then for Pascha (Easter) itself all mock death and reiterate its utter powerlessness and failure in the face of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to defeat sin and death in the power of Christ and to give them no foothold in our own lives. This does not mean that we do not suffer. Clearly, we are called to suffer with Christ (even “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24). In suffering with Christ, we will find that this suffering softens our hearts so that we learn to be present with others in their suffering. We will learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) for blessed are “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3–12). Learning this kind of compassion, however, gives no ground to sin and death. We are not stoically resigned to suffering but grateful for the life with Christ that we can enjoy even in the midst of death and in the midst of our fellowship with others in their sufferings.
As Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Without fleeing from suffering and death, we can participate in Christ’s “relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death as we live day to day in communion with Jesus Christ.
[Note: this is a short narrative by Elizabeth Russell written as a college course assignment on the topic of my mother’s death and our family’s goodbye to her. Also enjoy this wonderful reading of the story by Dr. Leslie Sillars, Professor of Journalism at Patrick Henry College.]
To my dear, beloved husband of almost 43 years:
You are trying to sleep right now behind me, fully clothed in your work attire, on a noisy crunchy plastic couch several feet shorter than you are. [You are] here with me in the hospital, after a very long hard day full of all kinds of stress, sacrificing, trying with all that is in you to serve me and help me. It’s a very appropriate picture of your life as my husband these many years…
He knows the words well by now. They bring back so many memories – raising nine children, years of missionary work in Taiwan, countless hikes and adventures and books read aloud in the evenings. The letter is creased and worn from many readings. He doesn’t know when she wrote it, exactly, but it must have been only a week or so before the end – before November 21, 2018, when cancer overwhelmed her body and sent her on ahead to God.
Steve and Faye Hake. Both of their names are etched into the headstone at his feet. They were not meant to be apart. Every month since her death, he has driven out to the cemetery to sit beside her in an old camp chair – reading her letter, reading his Bible, praying, remembering.
Today marks one year since her death. Here, among the cemetery’s bare trees and rolling hills, in the quiet and the cold, he has come to keep vigil with her. He will stay near her all day and all night.
It’s November 18, 2018. The Hakes’ small house, tucked into the rolling hills of West Virginia, is full of people. Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, and their whole family has gathered to celebrate. The living room overflows with grandchildren and games.
Faye spends most of her time in her bedroom, slipping in and out of a medicated sleep. She’s declining rapidly, and they all know it. But no one says anything.
Faye never wants to talk about death. Ever since she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in May 2014, she’s been fighting and planning and questioning the doctors’ grim diagnosis. She’s so optimistic and full of life – it simply isn’t in her nature to accept the statistics. Only 22% of patients with Stage IV breast cancer live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But Faye is determined to be in that 22%. If she can just gain a little strength, she can start another round of chemo, hold on a little longer… But Steve has known for a long time that she is dying. He can almost bear it if they do it all themselves – if they make sure it’s done right.
Months ago, he began researching natural burials and chose a local cemetery that allowed them. He bought a Walmart flat sheet to use for the shroud, and coils of hemp rope to lower her with. He asked his son-in-law Joel to carve the headstone – a smooth gray river rock taken from a property they’d loved. He even chose the hymns for her funeral. But he’s never been able to tell Faye any of it.
Steve’s oldest son Jesse pulls him aside.
“Have you asked Mom about everything? Is she okay with it?”
“I don’t know if I can,” he admits.
So Jesse goes into the bedroom, alone, to confront his mother with her death.
A few minutes later, she shuffles out into the kitchen. The room is crowded with children and grandchildren. Everyone is laughing – they’re making her an egg salad sandwich with pickles on top, some family joke. She laughs about the sandwich with them. When the laughter dies down, she speaks quietly.
“Jesse told me about everything, and it’s okay.”
It’s very still. Then the jokes and laughter begin again, and that is all. But it’s enough.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 2018. Faye was taken to hospice yesterday and slipped away quietly this morning, sometime just after sunrise. Steve spent the night on the floor, lying beside her bed. Now, he and his children are bringing her home.
Somehow, they get her body into the back of the old van. When they reach home, four of the boys gently roll her onto blankets and begin carrying her inside. Steve walks with them, at her head. They wonder if the front or the back way is fastest. They choose the back door, but the room they are carrying her through is full of boxes and old furniture from a move. A table leg sticks out too far, and they wait in strained silence while one of the girls rearranges the furniture. Someone breaks into nervous laughter. It’s strange and sad and comical and Steve wonders, Are we doing this right?
He doesn’t know. But it helps that they’re doing this together. The vast wilderness of loss is not uncharted; it only feels that way. He clings to that moment in the kitchen, to her voice saying softly, “It’s okay.”
Steve knows that Faye is not here anymore. But the body still feels like her. So they dress her in her favorite clothes and drape her in her favorite blue-and-brown blanket. They fill the bedroom with flowers and prayers and readings from her favorite Bible passages. Someone is always in there with her, holding her hand. Her hands are cold; under her are 25 pounds of dry ice, to keep the body from decaying. But the pain is gone from her face. Her gray-brown hair has been smoothed back from her full cheeks. She looks almost like she did back in college.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Steve is mostly numb with the strangeness of it all, like an amputation. But a weary thankfulness washes over him – gratitude that at least they can honor her. At least they can say goodbye like this.
Two days later, Steve and his sons are digging her grave. The morning is cold. They take turns, shovels biting into the deep red soil and heaping it up on either side of the grave. Six feet deep, six feet long, two feet wide. It’s hard work, but it feels good to do it themselves.
He needs to know what it will be like for her. Struck by a sudden impulse, he lies down in the grave. Staring up at the pale blue sky, he thinks One day this will be me, next door.
A year later, night is falling as Steve sits beside the grave. He can still make out the pale letters on the headstone that read Steve and Faye Hake. Cancer now runs through his body, too. How long before he is laid next to her?
Steve doesn’t know. But he is not afraid.
He hopes that, when his kids dig his own grave, they scoot him over right next to her.
As dusk falls, he lies down beside her, huddled in an old sleeping bag. He stares up into the cloudy night-blue sky, and her words come back to him.
I am getting very sleepy and fuzzy with pain medicine now, at 1:19 a.m. in this hospital bed. You are snoring peacefully behind me, if not comfortably, on that couch. I hope to have a few more days, weeks, or months – if not years, possibly – to hear and enjoy your snoring that I sometimes flipped you over to avoid.
I will quit now. I love you, Steve…I can’t wait to bow down together before God someday…and afterwards, to express our gratitude…
Thank you for the lovely long hike. I love you, Steve.
In Romans 8:22, Paul describes the world giving birth to a new creation: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” This birth involves all of us because, a few verses earlier, we learned that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19, ESV here and above). As we prepare for the birth of Christ, there is much to learn from this image of a world waiting with the eagerness of an expectant mother for a renewed humanity and suffering in the pains of childbirth for the revelation of a new cosmos.
Paul understood Christ to be the first human (consider the clear logic of 1 Corinthians 15:44-50, for example), and therefore Mary gives birth to the second Adam who will finally make possible the creation of the first Adam. Christ as the eternal Son of God is the original form upon which the first Adam was modeled, and Christ incarnate also becomes the firstfruits of a humanity for which the first Adam was always intended but to which he and all of his children had never attained.
Therefore, as Mary carried Christ, she carried all of us in our potential as fully realized humans. Moreover, containing Christ, Mary contained the whole of the new creation that Christ would bring about. Many ancient nativity hymns speak of Mary’s womb as paradise restored. Here is one example:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.
Creation is ongoing and incomplete apart from Christ. Cut off from the Tree of Life, we are estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world. God’s primary work is speaking as His Logos is coeternal with Him. However, God’s secondary work is shaping, and what we experience within the fallen world is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. It is not possible to resist the Logos of God, but God allows us—the material called into existence—to defy the shaping work of His hands to some degree. In fact, our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our rebellion against the image of the Logos that God longs to give to us. We will eventually delight to express this image in its fullness, but our opposition has resulted in a long and difficult labor, one in which the entire world must struggle to give birth to a new creation.
This language of the womb (both Mary’s and the world’s) is the language of creation for Paul. When God shapes humanity in Genesis 2, the same Hebrew verb (yatsar) is used as when the scriptures talk about God shaping each of us within our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–16 and Isaiah 44:24). Likewise, God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” in Genesis evokes a mother bird spreading herself over the eggs in her nest. The same verb used for the hovering of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 where we read that God cares for Israel “like an eagle who rouses his nest, over his fledglings he hovers” (Robert Alter’s translation throughout this paragraph).
Clearly, we have two related images with the work of the potter and the labor of a woman giving birth. Jean Hani, in his book Divine Craftsmanship shares wonderful insights into God as a potter (33-37):
The author of Ecclesiasticus pauses a moment to watch the potter at work and gives us a graphic portrait of him: “So doth the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set to his work, and maketh all his work by number. He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet.” (Eccles. 38:32-33)
This care, this skill, this freedom of the human artist before his work, perfectly evokes the attitude of the Divine Artist vis-à-vis His creature: “All men are from the ground, and out of earth, from whence Adam was created. As the potter’s clay is in his hand, to fashion and order it all: all his ways are according to his ordering.” (Eccles. 33:10, 13-14)
Saint Irenaeus …presents this gloss of Ecclesiasticus (Contra haer. IV, 39, 2): “If then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out.”
In the Letter of Barnabas 6.9 (AD 70 to 132) we read that “the human being is earth that suffers.” Citing this passage, John Behr expounds on our “suffering as we are molded by the hands of God, as clay in the hands of the potter, into his image, a process that continues throughout our lives, culminating in our death and resurrection, at which point one can even say that we are created” (The Wheel, 2008, “From Adam to Christ”).
Scott Cairns writes about the annunciation and nativity in a poem that is bookended by these images of formation and birth:
Deep within the clay, and O my people very deep within the wholly earthen compound of our kind arrives of one clear, star-illumined evening a spark igniting once again the ember of our lately banked noetic fire. She burns but she is not consumed. The dew falls gently, suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down. And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become the kindled kindred of a King whose birth thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.
This poem (composed for Gordon College students during a stay in Orvieto, Italy) opens with the work of God upon our collective clay and ends with the truth that, as Mary gives birth to Christ, she gives new birth to us all.
This world and Mary are both expectant, and we all wait to be born again in a birth that now can only come through death. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot contemplates how “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This is why the traditional nativity icons always depict the baby and his mother deep within a cave. It is a cave like that in which Christ’s dead body must be laid after his crucifixion. For the same reason, his swaddling clothes as a baby are the same in all the old icons as those bands that will wrap his body for burial. Christ, joins us in the womb of his mother and in the belly of the earth, both in his birth and in his death. God is with all who are just “earth that suffers” so that we, and the whole cosmos with us, can be remade and born again.
The dark background against which Jesus is shown [in the transfiguration icon] is something you will see in other icons as a way of representing the depths of heavenly reality. In the transﬁguration, what the disciples see is, as you might say, Jesus’ humanity “opening up” to its inner dimensions. …So the disciples look at Jesus, and see him as coming out from an immeasurable depth; behind or within him, inﬁnity opens up, “the dwelling of the light”, to borrow the haunting phrase from Job 38.19.
…Second, there is the connection of the [transfiguration] icon …and the story with the end of Jesus’ earthly life. God can live in the middle of death. That is good news on one level; on another, it means that living with God will not spare us trial, agony and death. In the Gospels, when Jesus has received Peter’s admission of faith – “You are the Anointed, the Son of the Living God” — he immediately goes on to predict his betrayal and death, and Peter protests. It is as if, there as here [in the icon], [Peter] lifts his hand to his eyes because he can’t manage what he sees. If only the vision of glory spared us suffering! But on the contrary, glory can only be seen for what it really is when we see it containing and surviving disaster.
…The Orthodox hymns for the feast of the Transﬁguration make the point often made by Orthodox theologians: Peter, James and John are allowed to see Christ’s glory so that when they witness his anguish and death they may know that these terrible moments are freely embraced by the God-made-human who is Jesus, and held within the inﬁnite depth of life. It is surely not an accident that it is Peter and James and John who are also with Jesus in Gethsemane: the extreme mental and spiritual agony that appears there is the test of what has been seen in the transﬁguration. We are shown that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror: the life of Jesus is still carried along by the tidal wave of that which the dark background of glowing blues and reds in the icon depicts, the life of God.
…This is the great challenge to faith: knowing that Christ is in the heart of darkness, we are called to go there with him. In John 11, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him”; and ahead indeed lies death — the dead Lazarus decaying in the tomb, the death of Jesus in abandonment, your death and mine and the deaths of countless human beings in varying kinds of dark night. But if we have seen his glory on the mountain, we know at least, whatever our terrors, that death cannot decide the boundaries of God’s life. With him the door is always open, and no one can shut it.
The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ by Rowan Williams.
The great Moses foreshadowed this day mystically by his saying, “And God blessed the seventh day”; for this is the day of quiet and rest, on which the only Son of God rested from all his Works, keeping Sabbath in the body, by means of the mystery of the dispensation taking effect in death, returning through Resurrection to what he had been, and granting us eternal life; for he alone is good and the Lover of mankind.
A hymn from the Holy Saturday Vesperal Liturgy (Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great) this morning. Not sure of the hymnographer (but likely Byzantine).
Note on the background of my writing of this story: In preparation for our Thanksgiving get-together this year, my mother-in-law asked all of the extended family members (of a capable age) to write a short story describing one day with a superpower of their choice. I did not entirely follow the directions, but this is what came to me.
For now, I’m leaving a few passages here from other places that helped me to respond with this story.
Emily Dickinson poem 1544:
Who has not found the Heaven — below —
Will fail of it above —
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove —
…Perhaps the best I cn say is that I felt as if I was united to all of these middle lines of Hopkin’s great poem:
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
…Although I was wore shoes and was in downtown York, PA rather than a pastoral setting such as this, the world still reached out to me in this same way. Just as the protagonist does within this passage, I stepped out into the early morning half-light:
A wondrous change had passed upon the world—or was it not rather that a change more marvellous had taken place in us? Without light enough in the sky or the air to reveal anything, every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes. Nothing cast a shadow; all things interchanged a little light. Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony! I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is! Sense after sense, hitherto asleep, awoke in me—sense after sense indescribable, because no correspondent words, no likenesses or imaginations exist, wherewithal to describe them. Full indeed—yet ever expanding, ever making room to receive—was the conscious being where things kept entering by so many open doors! When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.
Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was! I lived, and nothing could touch my life!
As I said, imagine all this but within the context that Paul describes in Romans 8:19-22:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
…We were close to concluding our conversation when the young man shared a few lines that he particularly loved from “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton:
For the end of the world was long ago,
As children of some second birth,
And all we dwell to-day
Like a strange people left on earth
As children of some second birth,
After a judgment day.
This recalled a line from a book that I had recently read, and I picked the book up, wishing that I could somehow point out the passage to him through the phone. Taking up George MacDonald’s Lilith, I put my fingers on the lines: “Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. …None but God hates evil and understands it.”
…As I tried to explain what the world was like through the senses of my glorified body, one passage that I shared was from “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” by C.S. Lewis. This was first delivered as a lecture in 1956 and then published posthumously in the 1966 collection of essays called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature:
We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.
This day last year, I helped to lay you in your bed downstairs when Dad, Joel, Katie, Luke and Liesl brought your body home. It was hard to have you with us and also no longer there. It was a blessing to have a few more days to see your beautiful face, to tend to your dear body that had born so much for us, to gather around you as all of your children and grandchildren in prayers and readings and songs. We read all the way through the Bible memory book that you and Dad made before you were married and kept working at all your lives. It was very hard to lay you in the ground and give your body over to the earth, but you would have loved the place that Dad picked out for the two of you. It’s truly a beautiful grave, among the native trees of Virginia, near a field sloping down to the nearby Shenandoah. You’re father and mother would have approved as well. How delightful it would be to show it to all of you. It’s kind of funny how much several of us also love to hear the prayers and songs of the Cistercian monks in their nearby abbey. You would have appreciated this too, although on some days you might have laughed and shaken your head at any of us mooning over monks. I’ve got a second essay being published in the Front Porch Republic. You missed them both, and I wrote them both thinking mostly of how much fun it would have been to talk it all over with you. And you would have really laughed to hear me laugh about being given more responsibilities at church and at the little company were I work. I don’t expect that your father would have fully approved of all the frippery, but grandma would have been proud nonetheless. There is an awful lot missing around home with you gone. We’re hurting in your absence, but you left behind a husband who really works hard to take care of himself and of all the children that you had together. And a few of those children are also working awfully hard to take care of each other. You did a pretty decent job of raising them and teaching them about things that matter. I don’t expect you’re in much danger these days of getting more big headed, but you know I always liked to hold on to the task of keeping you humble as one of my special chores around the house. So I’ll not say much more about what you left behind in case it tempt you to any self-congratulations as unlikely as that might be. But I will say that by remembering you as long as I keep being allowed to kick about this place, I’m also still learning who you were. You prayed with a terrible lot of heart for us all, and I expect that you’re still doing something mighty near to that. So here’s my hello and thank you and goodbye all over again on this anniversary of losing you. There’s a whole bunch of us praying with you, Mom, and even for you. May Jesus remember us all in His kingdom as we look to Him to bring us home.