Easter brings friends together after a year of separation.
At 10:15 am on Easter Sunday, members of my church began to arrive in the burying ground of the Old Dutch Church to celebrate the Risen Christ. As we greeted each other masked and safely distanced we could see smiling eyes – eyes we hadn’t seen in over a year. Chairs were spread out among the old stones to keep every one safe, but the joy of gathering together in the flesh was palpable. After a long year of social entombment, we all felt the joy of rising – from our beds, from our homes, and, as if on cue, the sun made an appearance as the service began. Out of darkness into light. We have started our pilgrimage back into the world. And it’s appropriate that we start from the place where it all began over three centuries ago.
As I sat surrounded by our spiritual ancestors I remembered the first time I visited the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. To reach the catacombs you must descend a narrow stone staircase with some dodgy lighting which opens up into an ancient burial space comprised of various chambers. Named after a wealthy Roman Christian who donated the land and was later martyred along with other members of her family, these catacombs are known for the frescoes that adorn the walls, some dating back to the 2nd century AD. Here we see an image of the Good Shepherd, the depiction of a feast that could be a eucharistic meal, and the image of a peacock – a representation of eternal life. The catacombs have the oldest known image of Mary which depicts her holding the infant Jesus in her lap. A controversial image shows a woman with arms outstretched in prayer which some say prove that women were ministers in the early church. These images speak about the things that mattered to these early Christians – communal fellowship, prayer, the mystery of the birth of Jesus, and the hope of eternal life. But there are also images of martyrdom, which was a very real threat. My friend, Fr Anthony Sorgie, said mass for our group, which was studying Gregorian Chant with him at the time. It was soul stirring to hear chant in that ancient space until a breeze blew out all of the candles and we found ourselves standing in pitch black darkness which was a little terrifying!
The headstones that surrounded us on Easter Sunday in the Dutch Burying Ground also tell stories of what the early church community believed. The soul effigies on the colonial headstones speak to the assurance of heaven.
Epitaphs instruct and console:
"Therefore be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh. Matthew 24. & 44" - Tamar Van Wart, d 1843, 69 years.
“He only is my rock and my salvation.” – Leah See, d 1859, 74 years.
“Little children Jesus bless’d, They shall on his bosom rest: The heavn’s with hallelujahs ring, While these dear ones his praises sing.” – Cornelia Dilkes, d 1826, 1 year and 11 months.
In another trip to Rome, I had the privilege of visiting the Scavi – the excavations of the ancient necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica which had been a popular place of pilgrimage up to the 4th century because it was believed that St Peter was buried there. I was told that the excavations started when a worker fell through the floor in 1940 and revealed a space that had been long closed off. Work continued all during WWII and graffiti was uncovered that says “Peter is here.” A box of bones was discovered and tested and found to belong to the 1st century AD. Standing in the dust of an ancient Roman burial ground looking up at a box that most likely contains the bones of the Disciple Peter, was for this pilgrim, more meaningful than any of the Renaissance splendor that decorates the sanctuary above.
So Easter finds me again in a burying ground celebrating the resurrection but much aware that life here is fragile, uncertain, and finite. The pandemic has touched everyone in one way or another. During the offeratory, as people approached the wooden cross to place their flowers the lesson was clear. He is risen! He is risen Indeed!
Greg Morehead for video of the Bell Choir; Tricia Sue for cleaning the Old Dutch Church; Temper Paine, Zachary Burnett, Lillian Hess and Melissa Doellman-Brown for setting up for Easter worship; Glen Allen for construction of the cross; members of the choirs … children, bell and chancel, and especially to Nanette Melera who sees to it that everything comes together.
Trumpet: Pablo Massis
Disciples: Anu Kim and Lila Leonard
Soloist: Nell Macdonald
Organist: Mi-Won Kim
Technical Services Extraordinaire: Jeremy Goldsmith