A wrong turn put me on a street that dead-ended into one of Louisville’s Catholic cemeteries I’d not visited before. I took it as an opportunity to pay my respects for these unknown citizens from days gone by. With my car in low gear I began to wend my way through the graves of the dead.
The stones date to the early 1800s, about the time of the Catholic influx to our city. Many of the graves are marked with crosses, virgin Marys, holy families, Latin inscriptions and angels. Lots of angels. They roll over the slight hills and around curving, narrow roads.
As I came over a rise I saw a digging crew creating yet another hole in this landscape. Tough work on a gray, freezing day. Not far away a familiar green tent was readied for a committal service later that morning. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” How sad that some families will have their Christmas interrupted by the need to bury a parent or a child or a friend.
My old buddy used to make me smile when he’d observe, “There are people dying today that ain’t never died before.” But his wry observation doesn’t always bring a smile, for it is deeply true.
Ready to leave, I began to look for the way out of the maze that is a cemetery layout. On my way, I came upon a small red pick-up truck that had pulled off to the side of the lane. I maneuvered around it as an elderly man stepped from the cab carrying a Christmas wreath. As I slowed my car I noticed a rope hanging from the wreath.
Curious, I pulled my car a respectable distance away and stopped to see what was up. The man trudged through several rows of markers. Something in his walk suggested that he’d been here many times before. Then he stopped in front of a grave. He stood perfectly still for a while, then fit the looped rope over the headstone so the wreath hung across the center of its face. He stepped back a few paces to inspect his work.
And in that moment my heart was broken.
The details are unknown. Was it the grave of his wife of 60 years? Was it his brother’s grave? Or his child’s? Was it a new grave or one that has been there for many years?
The absence of details invites each of us to insert our own story, our own name, our own heartache into this scene. Christmas time, for all its joy and hope, is also an occasion for loss and longing. This season, filled with songs of peace, love, family gatherings and joy, stirs a sadness in each of us for that which has been lost.
Somehow the old man sensed I was watching from my car a safe distance away. He raised his head and looked right at me, and I felt caught intruding on this sacred personal scene. But he waved. And as I waved back, the gift of Christmas, represented by the wreath slung across a beloved’s gravestone, pulled me into its warmth and peace.
Those with eyes and ears tuned to mystery believe that they can detect the faintest of songs in life. Maybe we’re delusional, but maybe it’s the song of angels bearing a message from beyond that speaks of hope, a new day, a promise that love is never lost, and those who are gone are not fully gone. Maybe there’s more power in love than we ever realized.
Maybe that’s why stone angels populate the cemetery.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and a member of BCE's board of directors. This column appeared previously on his blog.