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This article will publish on May 6, but as I sit here writing, it’s May 5.
May 5 is a solemn day on the Ayers family calendar.
On May 5, 2001, I lurched out of my bed to answer the ringing wall phone in my dorm room at Espenshade Hall, the voice of my grandmother on the other end of the line: “Jared, you’d better get over to that hospice place. Quick.”
Almost exactly a year prior, my Mom had received test results revealing that she had stage IV colon cancer. She braved an aggressive chemotherapy regimen, and hundreds of people rallied to pray and pray for her. But over several months, the cancer had spread through her body.
Our family knew Mom probably didn’t have long. So that Saturday morning, I sped across the county from my college to the hospice care facility receiving her, knowing I didn’t have a minute to spare. And I didn’t. My dorm room phone woke me at about 8am, and my Dad and I sat with her as she breathed her last just after 11am.
Rae Ann Ayers was a warm, gracious, joyous woman. She was the kind of person who didn’t have an enemy in the world, who befriended everyone around her, and who had a contagious smile. She loved her husband and kids, loved to laugh, loved a raucous evening with friends.
Her death in my freshman year of college opened a wound of grief in me — a wound I still carry. In the first years after her death, it felt raw, like an open gash that wouldn’t close. And in 19 years since, as I’ve moved through life-stages, that grief hasn’t receded, so much as it’s changed shape over time. Her absence at weddings, birthdays, and gatherings feels more now like an ache from an injury that you have no choice but to go on living with.
At the same time, there’s been something else growing alongside the grief: hope.
This Eastertide, I’ve been meditating on the stories of resurrection in Holy Scripture. In addition to the raising of Jesus from the dead, there are six “little-r-resurrection” stories in scripture which give us a feel for what God ultimately does for the cosmos at Easter.
One of the most fascinating ones is recorded in Luke 7, as Jesus raises the only son of a widow during a funeral procession in the town of Nain. Jesus stops the procession, touches the funeral bier, and addresses the dead man, drawing him up from death back into life, and giving him back to his mother.
Luke narrates this story with intentional echoes of an older story from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which the prophet Elijah raises the son of a widow. In that story, Elijah actually prostrates himself on the corpse of the boy three times and prays “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again!” Scholars ancient and contemporary agree: this is a weird moment. But these two resurrection-stories, viewed through the prism of Jesus’ own dying and rising, are pictures of dramatic identification. In Jesus, God identifies completely with death, reaches out and touches it. Jesus touches death, and draws the sting right out of it.
There’s a piece of the Syrian Orthodox Church’s liturgy that puts this beautifully:
How fair and lovely is the hope
which the Lord gave to the dead
when He lay down like them beside them.
Rise up and come forth and sing praise to Him
who has raised you from destruction.
This is fair and lovely to me every May 5: Jesus laid down with the dead — with Rae Ann Ayers — to rise from the grave and give her, and me, and you, the hope of a healed, resurrected life with God and all God’s rescued people forever.
When I imagine those grand visions in St. John’s Revelation of every tribe and tongue gathered around God in a cosmic wedding feast, I used to picture something like an anonymous United Nations-esque amalgamation of faceless humanity. I don’t do that anymore. Now, I picture real names, real people I’ve known and loved — Rae Ann, Ray, Molly, Michael, Bobby, Joe, Mickey, and more. And I thrill to know that, thanks to the hope of Easter, I’ll experience together with them what Robert Farrar Capon calls “the Dinner Party at the End of the World.”
This afternoon, we stopped into the one wine & cheese shop still open in the town we’re staying at in the moment, and procured their best bottle of wine (a 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo — not bad, Chestertown, Maryland!). And we’ll drink it tonight to thank God that Jesus laid down like us and beside us in death, and rose so that one day my family, with my Mom, will celebrate together at Jesus’ cosmic Dinner Party at the End of the World.