Words From Our Pastor
Grace and peace to you all this day in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As most of you who attend First Church know Kelley, Anya, and I have just returned from a restful vacation. We had a wonderful time and experienced a different part of God’s creation.
So, what I am about to say is probably going to solicit thoughts like, “But pastor, you were on vacation.” You see, when we travel, especially to places of historical interest, I like to visit old churches and cathedrals. There is a lot to learn about our past and how it affects our lives today.
We have so much to share. For example, when we were in England and Scotland, the connection between church and state was evident. The church has had a strong influence in the affairs of the government (state), as well as the state having a strong influence in the governance of the church. This goes back centuries. Study church history and one will see evidence of this in the development of the King James Version of the Bible. Yet it is just as fascinating to hear how religion played a part in the events surrounding Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charles, and succession to the English throne.
Our trip into Londonderry (referred to as Derry if you are Catholic) was just as enlightening. The struggle for equality in Northern Ireland was akin to our civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s except this had strong religious overtones. The history of the strife can be seen on huge murals painted on the sides of buildings in the predominately Catholic quarters. British flags still fly in the Protestant parts of the city. Incidentally, the old city of Londonderry is the last remaining, inhabited, walled city in the British Isles.
To me the most fascinating cathedral we visited was St. Mangus Cathedral in the city of Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Northern Scotland. St. Mangus was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honor of his uncle St. Mangus. The Cathedral was assigned to the inhabitants of Kirkwall by King James III of Scotland in 1486. The building is constructed of red and yellow sandstone. The effects of weather over the centuries have helped create pleasing, almost sculptured effects that add to the charm of the Cathedral.
Like most old churches in Europe and the Americas, St. Mangus has a cemetery surrounding the church on three sides. The headstones were also made of sandstone which have succumbed to the elements as well. A few the headstones have been maintained or replaced. Their inscriptions give the reader a lesson in how tough life was back in the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, once inside the real history lesson began, not only secular history but religious history as well. Did you know that people used to be buried in the floors of churches? If you have traveled to Westminster Abbey in London or any of the other famous cathedrals in Europe you may already have experienced this. People were buried in the smaller cathedrals as well. The tombstones were part of the floor. A person could walk over the graves and read the tombstones.
Over the course of the years the tombstones were taken up from the floors and mounted against the walls in St. Mangus. Reading tombstones can give us a view of how people from the 15th – 19th centuries looked at life and death (and how words and their use have changed over the centuries). For example, here is an actual inscription from one of the tombstones:
STRATES OF KIRKWALL
Think about those two last lines, ‘she lived regarded and dyed regreted’[sic]. What does that tell you about Mary Young? A beautiful inscription about someone who lived centuries ago. Yet, depending on how one reads and interpret the words, the meaning can change.
Another fascinating find came from a tombstone dated 27 Oct 1681. Inscribed at the end was the Latin phrase MEMENTO.MORI, remember your mortality. There was also skull and crossbones, an hour glass, candle, and a hand holding a chalice sculpted in the stone. Again, these are symbols reminding the living of our mortality. Years after one’s death the only thing remaining in a coffin will be the skull and the femurs, the largest bones in the body. The candle is to remind us that our lives are slowly burning down, the hour glass signifies we all have only a limited amount of time in the world, and the chalice and hand is the cup of Christ’s blood poured out for our salvation. The two tools on either side are burial tools for digging graves.
So, here’s a thought that crossed my mind. In 350-400 years, when someone is walking through one of our cemeteries, what clues are we going to leave them that point to of our spirituality and beliefs? What words or symbols will we leave that speaks of our faith in our God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? What story will our tombstones tell?
So, until next month, Shalom.