I remember going with my dad to the cemetery during Qingming. (For the Chinese it is a day to remember and honour one’s ancestors. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, (joss) paper accessories, and/or libation to the ancestors. Wikipedia). Dad and I were Christians and so we didn’t participate in the religious ceremonies. But we were there as an expression of our loyalty to the family.
We would go early in the morning to miss the crowds. And to miss the heat of the late morning sun. It would be dark and cool as we drove from our home in Pulau Tikus to the Batu Gantong Chinese Cemetery. At the cemetery we would walk through the wet dew-covered grass, and visit the various tombs.
Once again I would be reminded of a grandpa that I had never met, a grandma who died when I was 13 and a cousin my parents adopted but who died before I was born. She was very special to my dad because every year he would carpet her grave with flower petals. I remember the fragrance of the petals and the colours, bright against the backdrop of the granite and the grey of the dawn.
I remember those visits because it would be one of the few times I would get to meet up with many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I remember because I would once again get a chance to hear the stories of loved ones now gone, and briefly they lived again. Those members of the family who held to traditional Chinese beliefs believed that the spirits of the departed were at the graves and Qingming was also a time to commune with them and to ask them for favours. It was believed that since the departed dwelt in the spirit realm they could influence events on earth and could carry on their family responsibilities of caring for the family.
Whatever your religious convictions, it was a time to remember family and to celebrate the ties that bind. Still, I always remember those early morning visits as tinged with a subtext of sadness. Whatever you believed as to what happens to people when they died, there was also the realization that they were gone forever. One day we would join them. But the dead do not return to us. We all had our theories as to where their spirits had gone. But their bodies lie rotting in their graves. The dead do not come back.
When I think of those early morning Qingming trips with my dad I find it very easy to imagine the following scene.
“Saturday evening, when the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out and purchased burial spices so they could anoint Jesus’ body.Very early on Sunday morning, just at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they were asking each other, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?'”
(Mark 16: 1-3 NLT)
Here was another group who set out to the graves early in the morning. They were not going to welcome Jesus back from the dead. Don’t be silly. People who die do not come back. Here was a group in grief. Someone they cared for had died. And grief needs expression. They were going to put extra spices on Jesus’ dead body so that the smell of death could be masked for a little while longer.
But what awaited the ladies at the tomb was nothing they could have expected. What awaited them was a turning point in history. Their spices would not be needed. Jesus’ tomb was empty.
“But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.’ The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened.” (Mark 16:4-8 NLT)
Jesus was no yogi who had slowed down his breathing and had been revived from some self-induced coma. Here was a Jesus who had died and gone… and had risen from the dead. For the first time death was not the last word. For the first time the tyranny of death had been broken. And the shock waves from that resurrection would ripple out throughout history. At Easter the tide turned.
These shock waves of life that started from an empty tomb in Jerusalem 2000 years ago will continue to move out and leaven all of history until the end of time. Then:
“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.'”
(Revelation 21:3-4 NLT)
Till then we have this choice. Remain in death or ride the wave of life. Jesus said:
“‘And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it’s here now, when the dead will hear my voice—the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live.'”
(John 5:25 NLT)
Dad is gone now. His body is buried in the Western Road Christian Cemetery. But he heard the voice. He rides that wave.
I miss him and I miss many others. Indeed I grief over every manifestation of death and sin and evil I encounter. But I also find in my heart a strange exhilarating confidence. I know everything will be OK in the end. The tide has turned. And I am riding that unstoppable wave that started at Easter.