The resurrection of Jesus Christ never shines so brightly as when positioned in the forefront of death and darkness. There, this doctrine is like a sparkling diamond placed in front of the backdrop of black velvet.
I never will forget, as a boy, the site of an Easter sunrise service by one of the churches in our community. Their tradition was to process from the sanctuary of the little white clapboard building across the road and into the church cemetery. Led by a child holding a processional cross and followed by the black-robed minister with a pure white surplice over his robe, and a long flowing stole, flapping in a chilly, Easter-morning dawn, he would read resurrection passages from the New Testament. A long train of choristers in white cassocks completed the battalion of believers.
They processed past Melissa’s grave. She had been a childhood friend who died in a car accident when she was 14 years old. They marched by the grave of Mr. Roads who was the local school custodian—a legendary figure in our day who spoke to children, could spit tobacco from toothless gums and hit a coffee can from 6 feet—and who lived to be a very old man of 60—old to me then. I noticed many graves with MILTON written on the tombstone and I felt as if I were looking upon my own grave. Aunt Eva and I moved along with the small, humble congregation on that truncated Easter pilgrimage (one of the pilgrims was my teacher, but Mrs. Atkinson seemed less authoritative and more solemnly small and humanly accessible that morning).
A Canterbury Tale could be told by those that followed the chosen child carrying the big wooden cruciform, the black-robed minister and the white-cassock-choir into the cemetery. Live Oak trees, draped in wet, gray-green moss, with low-lying thick limbs guarded the place like sad, old Confederate-veteran sentinels. The preacher broke the silence of the scene with another reading from the Gospel of John.
The heavy dew that anointed our sunrise service turned into a frigid, steady drizzle. I drew closer to Aunt Eva. I was looking down to keep the rain out of my eyes. I spotted an ant bed—South Louisiana fire ants—that had made a bed on the grave of a child. How did I know that it was a child’s grave? It had to have been a child’s grave. The plot and mound were so small. I thought, “Did I know the child? How long ago did he or she die?” As the drizzle turned to large drops of rain, the water pelleted off of the tombstone of that particular plot and hit the ant-bed with unrelenting power. “Pow! Pow!Pow” the rain peppered the poison ant bed. The red ants scurried from the cataclysmic nightmare as the rain water decimated their brown nest on the child’s grave.
Distracted by the fire ants and growing sleepy as the minister read on, never pausing from the drizzle, I leaned on Aunt Eva, who whispered, “I feel sorry for the minister in this weather.” Then she continued without a pause, talking to me, the way she would, not expecting an answer, “My hair will be a mess, but I won’t be the only one…” Suddenly, I was brought back to the reality of the sunrise service in the graveyard. The choir began to sing:
“I heard an old, old story
How a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me;
I heard about His groaning,
Of His precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins
And won the victory.”
Then we all sang:
“O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.”
I looked at the faces in the choir and in the congregation all around me—maybe 20 or so—plumbers, turnip farmers, a sheriff’s deputy, a feed store owner, housewives and school teachers. Some sang with their eyes closed and held in their tears. I wondered, “Was that child theirs—the ant bed grave?” Others seemed to look up to the darkened Easter sunrise sky and sing as if looking for a sign from heaven. Some smiled. Some smiled and cried at the same time, which, I recall confused me.
The ant bed was washed away by the time we stopped singing.
In the graveyard, dressed in my annual Easter white jacket from Sears and Roebuck and a new bow tie, the girls with new floral dresses, and a few other boys with new ties or at least new shirts, we stood there: believers in the resurrection, faced with a graveyard, alongside choristers in their soaked cassocks clinging to their bodies, and all of us clinging to the truth we had just sung. Then I looked for again for the fire ants. They were nowhere to be found. Their brown ant bed was melted across the grave as the tombstone stood triumphant.
“Alright everyone!” The minister raised his voice. “Out of the rain and back to the fellowship hall for coffee and donuts.” It was a benediction of sorts. Life was stronger than death. Hope was more enduring than sorrow. Donuts for the living!
“My hair is going to be a mess for church. Mike, straighten your tie, Son. Come on, now.” Aunt Eva’s exact words or words very much like them were repeated in a litany of whispers all through the little band of believers. The ancient cadences of ordinary time are predictably comforting. As we moved through the fence gate, and crossed the road, the volume went from whispers to normal tones. The women bent down to their children to give their motherly instructions and murmured to each other about their hair and their roasts as they held shiny black purses over their heads. Some men lit cigarettes, and some pulled a plug of tobacco out and stuffed it in their cheeks—one last chew before Sunday School. I raced another boy for the door and beat him to it. Once inside the fellowship hall, he pushed me away and ran past me to the folding table where the donuts waited on wax paper.
Life went on, but I never can forget the white clad processional through the cemetery. I never could forget singing “Victory in Jesus” or watching the ant bed that couldn’t withstand the Easter rain. There was something triumphant in the humble scene that continues to whisper the glorious refrain deep into my soul, a refrain that has changed everything: “He is risen.”
Dr. Michael Milton is a long time PCA pastor and educator. He is an author, composer and Army Reserve chaplain. He was the fourth president-chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary.