04/17/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Tombstone Jesus

The fish is fine,' said the city manager,
'but no Jesus allowed on the tombstones in the cemetery.'
The name Jesus would be offensive to some.
The family was devastated and asked the manager to reconsider.
He refused - 'What if somebody wanted to put a swastika?'
'The matter would have to be taken to the city attorney,
because people would be offended by the name of Jesus.'
(News excerpts from Sterling, Colorado)

Some years ago, during a visit to Jerusalem, I went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, reputed to be on the place of Jesus' tomb. I was rather underwhelmed, and wondered where Jesus really was amid all of the tourists and souvenirs. My thoughts echoed the words of Mary: "they have taken him away, and I don't know where they have put him." Nevertheless, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is considered to be one of the "holiest" sites in Christendom -- not for the body buried in it, but for the body that it was unable to contain.

The words and symbols inscribed on the tombstones of people who have died are often very interesting and revealing. Sometimes I have wandered through cemeteries for the sole purpose of reading what is written. Many of the oldest inscriptions and symbols on the gravestones reflect a hopeful anticipation of resurrection and life after death, along with the yearning of family and loved ones to be reunited with their dear departed. Other inscriptions simply reflect the deep sorrow and loss felt by loved ones who were left behind. And occasionally there are gravestones with cryptic and even humorous inscriptions that reflect the character of the departed -- like this inscription on a rural gravestone in Vermont: "She lived with her husband for fifty years, and died in the confident hope of a better life."

Not far from where I live there is an old deserted cemetery that once belonged to a small fishing village perched on a barren promontory overlooking the North Atlantic. On a rocky knoll above that cemetery is a large white cross overlooking a small field of very old gravestones -- the names and inscriptions have been lost to more than a hundred years of wind and weather. We know no longer know who lies beneath those stones nor do we know what final epitaphs bespoke their faith or fate. We do know that some were fishermen who lost their lives at sea and the huge white cross is a memorial to those unknown sailors who perished and were never found. The simple cross and its inscription "To the unknown sailor" stands as a reminder that though their bodies were never recovered from the sea -- it hardly matters, for they are remembered and depths of the cold dark sea is not their final end.

Like this cross above an old cemetery, the cross engraved on tombstones is one of the most enduring symbols of hope associated with death and remembrance. It is a profound symbol that says no matter how tragic, untimely, or horrific death can be -- death itself is not the final end of life. There is hope beyond the tomb, for the cross which represents one of the most cruel and unusual forms of death did not define the end of life -- but the beginning. The cross of Jesus Christ stands between the grief and pain of human dying and the undying hope of love and resurrection life beyond the tomb.

The story of Jesus' friend Lazarus who became sick unto death and was buried in a tomb defies the logic of death's finality. Jesus went to the tomb where people were grieving with the family, and Jesus also wept to the point of trembling and groaning with deep emotion. The death of a friend or family member is never easy. Many of us have experienced the death of a parent or the death of a person close to us and have felt the emptiness of losing someone we really cared for. As Jesus stood weeping before the tomb he wept as one would weep not only for a friend, but for those whose lives were so closely linked with his. But Jesus did stay on in sorrowful remembrance beside the tomb, he asked for the gravestone to be removed. It was a request that shocked everyone who was grieving there, for they all knew what was inside -- just a decomposing corpse that once was Lazarus.

The gravestone needed no inscription; an epitaph would not have done justice to what Jesus did. By the word of Jesus, the dead man Lazarus was called from death to life. The belief in life after death was no abstract hope, no mere consolation of reunion, but a reality. Jesus did the impossible -- he raised Lazarus back to life. Death was undone, and on that day the tombstone was not a final seal of death! From that moment on the religious leaders conspired to kill Jesus. It was too outrageous and scandalous to have a man like Jesus bringing dead men back to life. And so it wasn't long before Jesus was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. When he was dead his body was secured in a tomb just like Lazarus' and with that the cross and sepulcher should have been the end of the matter, but that was not to be the case at all .....!