Friday, July 31, 2009

Dona Eis Requiem in New Orleans

I think the most powerful story coming out of the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans was that of the group of youth assigned to clean up an old cemetary. This is a graveyard for the poor, and the bodies are buried in wooden coffins and buried only in four feet of earth, because of the high water table in the area. The coffins disintigrate rapidly, and sometimes the bones work their way to the surface. The youth, in their job of cleaning up, found bones, which they reburied, as well as said a prayer of blessing and re-consecration.

What I find so moving is not the idea of these teenagers coming across the bones, although that is remarkable and I am sure was a profoundly moving and memorable experience for them. But what goes through my mind is the connection this action of these 21st century teens has with the early Christians. In the first centuries, when being a Christian was tantamount to being an enemy of the state (Jesus is Lord, not Caesar), one of the things that got Christians "good press" was how they treated the bodies of the dead. They treated these bodies with respect, including the bodies of those who were not part of their Christian communities, with all the proper actions of washing, laying out, wrapping in clean linen, and giving them a decent burial.

The reason behind this was, of course, the Christian hope in the resurrection of the body. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection, so those who are in Christ will be raised, bodily, at the last trumpet. This belief is all over the New Testament letters of St. Paul, as well as in Revelation. The earthly body was not something to be despised, nor something to be shrugged off like an old filthy rag, good riddance!, at death. Whatever heaven looks like, it is to be populated with bodies -- glorified bodies, it is true, free from corruption, but real bodies nonetheless. Our bodies are the result of God's careful crafting, as Genesis 2 tells us, and are to be treated with care and respect shown to all of God's handiwork, in death no less than in life. And so early Christians, and Christians down through the centuries since, have respectfully, hopefully, cared for the body at death and through burial, whenever possible.

So as these young people came across these bones, these dry, lifeless bones, they witnessed to the Christian faith's proclamation of new life coming in the midst of death and decay, new birth in the middle of a graveyard. "See, I am making all things new," Jesus says in Revelation, and that is the hope in rebuilding the flood-wrecked city of New Orleans. But so much that was destroyed cannot be restored: lives lost, dreams swept away, the precious relics of the past consumed by mold and mud. Even in the face of all of that destruction, the Christian faith dares to utter a word of defiance. Hear the word of the Lord: These bones will rise again! The Lord of Life and Death does keep track, and none of these slain are lost from him.

And until that day, these words from the end of the graveside service echo over those graves, and with the hands of those who tended to these holy relics of God's children, made in His image: Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.

1 comment:

Ted said...

This was also my favorite story from New Orleans. What a powerful image of service!