I will never forget, as a boy, the site of an Easter sunrise service by one of the churches in our community. Their tradition was to process from the sanctuary of the little white clapboard building across the road and into the church cemetery. Led by a child holding a processional cross and followed by the black-robed minister with a pure while surplice over his robe, and a long flowing stole, flapping in a chilly, Easter-morning dawn, he would read resurrection passages from the New Testament. A long train of choristers in white cassocks completed the battalion of believers. They processed past Melissa’s grave. She was killed in an accident. We were children together. They marched by the grave of Mr. Roads who was the local school custodian—a legendary figure in our day who spoke to children, could spit tobacco from toothless gums and hit a coffee can from six feet—and who lived to be a very old man—of sixty—old to me then. I noticed many graves with MILTON written on the tombstone and I felt as if I were looking upon my own grave. Aunt Eva and I moved along with the small, humble congregation on that truncated Easter pilgrimage (one of the pilgrims was my teacher, but Mrs. Atkinson seemed less authoritative and more solemnly small, even humanly accessible that morning). A Canterbury Tale could be told by those that followed the chosen child carrying the big wooden cruciform, the black robed minister and the white-cassock-choir into the cemetery. Live Oak trees, draped in wet, gray-green moss, with low-lying thick limbs guarded the place like sad, old Confederate-veteran sentinels.The preacher broke the silence of the scene with another reading, from the Gospel of John. The heavy dew that anointed our sunrise service turned into a frigid, steady drizzle. I drew closer to Aunt Eva. I was looking down to keep the rain out of my eyes. I spotted an ant bed—South Louisiana fire ants—that had made a bed on the grave of a child. How did I know that it was a child’s grave? It had to have been a child’s grave. The plot and mound were so small. I thought, “Did I know the child? How long ago did he die?” As the drizzle turned to large drops of rain, the water pelleted off of the tombstone of that particular plot and hit the ant-bed with unrelenting power. “Pow! Pow!Pow!” the rain peppered the poison ant bed. The red ants scurried from the cataclysmic nightmare as the rain water decimated their brown nest on the child’s grave.
Distracted by the fire ants and growing sleepy as the minister read on, never pausing from the drizzle, I leaned on Aunt Eva, who whispered, “I feel sorry for the minister in this weather.” Then she continued without a pause, talking to me, the way she would, not expecting an answer, “My hair will be a mess, but I won’t be the only one…” Suddenly, I was brought back to the reality of the sunrise service in the graveyard. The choir began to sing:“I heard an old, old story How a Savior came from glory, How He gave His life on Calvary To save a wretch like me; I heard about His groaning, Of His precious blood’s atoning, Then I repented of my sins And won the victory.”
Then we all sang.“O victory in Jesus, My Savior, forever. He sought me and bought me With His redeeming blood; He loved me ere I knew Him And all my love is due Him, He plunged me to victory, Beneath the cleansing flood.”
I looked at the faces in the choir and in the congregation all around me—maybe twenty or so—plumbers, turnip farmers, a sheriff’s deputy, a feed store owner, housewives, and school teachers. Some sang with their eyes closed and held in their tears. I wondered, “Was that child theirs—the ant bed grave?” Others seem to look up to the darkened Easter sunrise sky and sing as if looking for a sign from heaven. Some smiled. Some smiled and cried at the same time, which, I recall, confused me.
The ant bed was washed away by the time we stopped singing.
In the grave yard, in my annual Easter white jacket from Sears and Roebuck, and a new bow tie, and girls with new floral dresses, and a few other boys with new ties or at least new shirts, we stood there: believers in the resurrection, faced with a graveyard, alongside choristers in their soaked cassocks clinging to their bodies, and all of us clinging to the truth we had just sung. Then I looked for where the fire ants were. They were nowhere to be found. Their brown ant bed was melted across the grave as the tombstone stood triumphant.
“Alright everyone!” The minister raised his voice. “Out of the rain and back to fellowship hall for coffee and donuts.” It was a benediction of sorts. Life was stronger than death. Hope was more enduring than sorrow. Donuts for the living.
“My hair is going to be a mess for church. Mike, straighten your tie, Son. Come on, now.” Aunt Eva’s exact words or words very much like them were repeated in a litany of whispers all through the little band of believers. The ancient cadences of ordinary time are predictably comforting. As we moved through the fence gate, and crossed the road, the volume went from whispers to normal tones. The women bent down to their children to give their motherly instructions and murmured to each other about their hair and their roasts, as they held shiny black purses over their heads. Some men lit cigarettes, and some pulled a plug of tobacco out and stuffed it in their cheeks—one last chew before Sunday School. I raced another boy for the door and beat him to it. Once inside the fellowship hall, he pushed me away and ran past me to the folding table where the donuts waited on wax paper.
Life went on. But I can never forget the white clad processional through the cemetery. I could never forget singing “Victory in Jesus” or watching the ant bed that couldn’t withstand the Easter rain. There was something triumphant in the humble scene that continues to whisper the glorious refrain deep into my soul, a refrain that has changed everything:
“He is risen…”