This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. Psalm 118:20
Recently I’ve found myself walking through sunny fields dotted with monuments standing as quiet sentinels. These fields are cemeteries. Many people don’t like cemeteries; they try to avoid them at all costs. Others greet these fields with a profound sense of sadness; their eyes fill with tears as they remember those they have loved and lost. Still others approach cemeteries with all the fascination of a child at Christmas. Here they can find history, ancestry, tradition. I suppose that up until a few years ago I thought of cemeteries with a sense of ambivalence. They served a purpose, not unlike many other places, but beyond a graveside service I had no need of them.
That ambivalence changed for me a few years ago. In my studies I learned that Psalm 118 had traditionally been used by the Christian church in their funeral services. They would process from the church to the cemetery to lay to rest a saint. As they went they would chant this Psalm back and forth on the way to the grave. Think of how the tone of this event would change as you sung the lines, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.”
Often we approach this walk to the grave with profound sadness. This is an ending. We are saying good bye. We are parting ways. And all of this is true. I’ve never really met the burial of a loved one with great joy. For people of faith the burial of a loved one is something even more than this present sadness. This walk is accompanying our loved one to the very gate of the Lord! We are taking them, as one final act of love, to go and be with the Lord! We are entrusting them to the same Lord who has named us, and claimed us in our baptism and who even now holds us and sustains us!
It’s for this reason then that pastors often read those taunting words from the Apostle Paul, “Where O death is your victory; where O death is your Sting!” In our world where so little seems sure and certain except the fact that we will die and go down into the dust; we Christians are meet with a new sure and certain promise. We are held by the truth that even this sure and certain death is not so sure and certain. The graves that we are told hold us prisoner are now robbed of their power by the risen Christ and transformed into the very gate of the Lord through which his saints pass! No wonder Paul taunts death!
I’m reminded of the funeral tradition from the town of New Orleans. There the casket is carried to the grave with the song “O When the Saints go Marching in” played as a dirge. However, returning from the grave that song is played with all the rhythm and flair that we’ve come to expect from it. Why? Because they’ve just escorted yet another saint to the gate of the Lord! And that is cause for celebration! So for those of you who have lost loved ones, as you come near cemeteries think on these words we’ve discussed. And may you be strengthened even in your sadness to see that here is a place filled with promise; that here is the meeting ground of humanity and God! This is the Lord’s Gate!