There are, in fact, some things worse than death. The Psalmist cries, “Man dies, and his place knows him no more.” “Man dies.” Yes, that’s bad enough, but it’s the second part of that verse that expresses the greater dread, a death beyond death. “His place knows him no more.” That is the terrible prospect of a total and unalterable separation, a loss of place.
Who can even imagine how it would be if a person were wiped clean from the memory of earth and heaven and all that dwell therein? Not simply to cease to live but to have one’s brief days of life delivered to nothingness? Oh…the icy fingers of hell reach out of that thought!
But it is, in fact, what we human beings today have largely accepted, if not entirely comfortably, as our lot in life. Yes we fear death. Such fear is witnessed by our readiness to squeeze out a few more years by cannibalizing other human beings, from embryos to cadavers, for stem cells and body parts…even from some animals…to Gerry-rig this machine we have resigned ourselves to inhabiting.
And yet we do not really comprehend the Psalmist’s dread that our place knows us no more…because we have no place. We are anywhere and everywhere…which means, finally, nowhere.
The philosopher Philippe Beneton puts it well: “We are all different, says modern man, and the differences make no difference. I may choose to live in the Loire valley, because my caprice inclines me to rolling countryside and quaint little empty churches. Tomorrow I may choose the Arizona desert. It makes no difference. Any land is mine, because I am equally alien to all. I am the [opposite] of the old French peasant, whose boots might never have pressed the soil twenty miles beyond his farm and village, but who knew his home, as his home knew him.”
Jesus too! To listen to some popular expressions of Christian faith, it is as though our Lord’s ascension has taken Him away, leaving us nothing but His Spirit hovering about. He is everywhere, we say…which in practice makes Him nowhere. And a skeptical world looks on, singing, “He’s the real nowhere Man, sitting in His nowhere land, making all His nowhere plans for nobody!”
Even we Christians, rather than spending a lifetime getting to know the small place of Jesus’ presence with us—in the Word, in the font, in the Supper, within the fellowship—a lifetime of getting to know His place among us, as He knows each one of us in those places among us…instead…we chase every spirit, every empty specter of trendy religiosity.
It’s one significant reason why a village congregation…such as our St. Peter’s…is far closer to true Christianity than the utopian visions of some McMega-church with its here-today-gone tomorrow congregation. As Christ walked over time with His disciples, and now walks with His disciples through time by His Word and Sacraments…so in the same way a village congregation knows its place as its place knows it…because of the length of time of walking with Christ.
The hands in the congregation, for instance, that till the springtime soil, just as the hands of their fathers and grandfathers turned it before them, as the sons and daughters and grandchildren will do in years yet to come…such hands know the meaning of place. Life grips its roots down into the soil of time.
Perhaps in the village air one occasionally hears the bell toll at noon from the tower. And hearing that mournful bell, the listener recognizes, as the old poem says, that in sending to know for whom the bell tolls…he knows it likewise tolls for him. For in a village congregation, “none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone”! That bell reminds each and every one in this place that we are, in fact, going someplace. We know our place, as our place knows us.
Indeed, in this place, it is impossible to pass the weeks without seeing the reminders of those who have gone before us. Reminders of the hands that built this place, that served in this place, hands that worked and mourned and clasped and helped in this place. Indeed we might pass them everyday…those buried on the hill at North Leeds, in Poynette, and in God’s various acres scattered around the townships. The very place where we expect to lie one day. We know our place and our place knows us. So we know that we are going…some place!
This past weekend I was reminded once again, that once upon a time there was a holiday called Memorial Day…Decoration Day before that. A secular holiday, yes, but it shared a sense of the sacred, and a deep and abiding sense of place, all of which made the holiday possible. In the morning the veterans would march with the local high school band through town to the cemetery…through the place of the living generation, to that place of the generations gone before.
And once there, you couldn’t help but look over the gravestones. Read the names, the dates. Some are great obelisks of memory, others white limestone nearly smooth with time and weather. Instinctively you knew not to talk, or if you must, it was in a subdued whisper. From childhood you’d learned not to walk on the graves, but it’s hard not to do so with so many individuals and whole families lying beneath the mounded sod.
And in that place someone would recite “Four score and seven years ago…” or perhaps “In Flanders field the poppies blow Between the crosses row on row…” They knew this place, and how this place knew them. A man in uniform would bark a command. The click-click of rifles loading. “Fire!” Click-click. “Fire!” Click-click. “Fire!” Then silence. Then a lone bugle playing “Taps.” The sounds, the sights of rest in place.
But…that holiday is vanishing…if not altogether gone. Oh, remnants remain but the substance has bled away. It’s become a nowhere weekend for scurrying nowhere in particular. Much as the Ascension of our Lord nowadays lacks the flesh and blood of place…having lost out to the enthusiasm of the “spirit” everywhere, yet nowhere.
Let the Christian resist! Our Lord’s Ascension does not erase His place on earth. It intensifies it! As the angels asked, “What are you guys looking up there for?” He is here, not just spiritually, but truly here in this place, for here He has called us together with Him. He is in the place called Holy Baptism. He is in the place called the Holy Supper. We know His place. We live in His place. For He lives in us by that place.
Our remembering the Lord’s words and deeds, His miracles, His commands, His promises, His passion and death, His resurrection, ascension, and promised return…all of it dwells in this holy place with us with Him. This does not bury us in the dead past. It plants us, roots us in the place, like rich prairie soil, which brings life from the past, in the present, into the future.
Let us remember our place, for He is in it, and He remembers us. Let us not run from one distraction to another in a deadening attempt to search for a place, for we will find none. Instead, let us press on to know the place He has named by His ascension…“for there, here,” He says, “I am with you always.” And knowing His place prepared with us here…we come to know the place He prepares for us there. For where He is, here…there…we will be. There…you know your place!