As we drive along our country’s highways, we’ve all seen them: a roadside cross, bouquets of flowers, perhaps some candles, a stuffed animal or a jersey from the local high school. Sometimes there’s a hand-painted placard with a name and a date. They are memorials to a tragic time when lives were changed forever. Highway roadside memorials—sometimes called descansos, from a Spanish word meaning “to rest”, have become so common that some states have needed to seek alternatives. Joyce Keeler knows the pain of losing a loved one in a tragic automobile accident. Thirty years ago her son lost his life on a rural road in Delaware. For Joyce, driving by the site of the accident is still too painful. She avoids it, even all these years later because the memory remains deep in her heart and mind. But instead of a descanso, Joyce goes to the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden. There, tucked amid the busyness of nearby highways U.S. 13 and Delaware 1, are trees, shrubs flowers, and a pathway lined with memorial bricks that bear the names of those who have lost their lives on the roads of Delaware. In the center of the garden is a pond with goldfish, frogs, water lilies and a serene fountain. It’s a peaceful place to remember and reflect. To honor the memory of her son, Joyce sits quietly near the brick that bears his name. In most states, descansos are illegal, but officials rarely enforce those laws. Delaware is one of several states providing alternative memorials because traffic safety officers worry roadside descansos are dangerous to drivers and those who maintain them. Several other states have implemented sign programs that offer a safer option to mark the site of a crash, while others offer to plant memorial trees at the sites of fatal accidents. Joyce Keeler much prefers the garden over the roadside memorial, saying, “Things like that get old, and the flowers fade. But this memorial will never go away.”
Losing a loves one is tragic and changes lives forever. It results in a brokenness unlike any other—maybe even a brokenness that feels unhealable. Memorials like cemeteries, descansos, and serenity gardens can help in their own way—they provide a place of healing through remembrance like Joyce Keeler spoke of, but there is another kind of memorial we can craft when enduring the pain and brokenness of life changing events, that will also create opportunities for healing, and possibly even…wholeness.
Long ago, another mother lost a son. It’s not likely, however, she ever went back to the place where he died. Not much chance she wanted to sit by a cross, like some parents might do today, because the cross on this hill was the instrument of her son’s cruel and painful death. She’d been there to witness it. So where would she go to remember? Did she want to erect a memorial? Did she want some place she could visit and just think about her son? Did she want to put up a sign in his memory in his hometown Nazareth, or in Bethlehem where he was born, or at the site of some of his most famous miracles? Her people, after all, had a strong tradition of building memorials. The patriarch Jacob set up memorials to mark decisive events in his life, as did Joshua after crossing the Jordan. Surely, the thought crossed her mind: “How can I remember my son? How can we all remember him?” Who could know the agony she endured from Friday to Sunday morning? Surely no memorial, no matter how beautiful and serene, would ever be enough. The heart ache must have been suffocating. The pain of brokenness unbearable. How would she find healing and wholeness?
Then… the news. Shouts of joy and glee and…hope. The tomb is empty! After the initial questions and confusion subsided, much of what she’d heard Jesus say must have come flooding back to her mind! She would never need to visit a cross or a tomb! She would never need to erect a pile of stones! She would never need to plant and maintain a memorial garden! Her son—who was dead— is alive! The prophecy was complete. The promise was fulfilled. The truth—His truth— had set her free from her pain—and she could breathe again. Jesus—all that he said, and now all that he did—healed her of her pain and brokenness. Which meant a new memory, a new kind of memorial of what had happened would be necessary.
While Mary, Jesus’ mother, may not have felt like she needed to go to the tomb that first Easter morning, two other Marys did. The very same instinct that drives people to the site of a crash may have carried Mary Magdalene, a close disciple of Jesus, and another Mary, identified a few verses earlier as the mother of James and Joseph, to the tomb early in the morning. They came not with a handmade cross and flowers, but with oils and spices. They came not to set up a descanso, but to care for the body of the one they followed, the one who loved and accepted them when no one else did. They came prepared to do the only thing they could think of to honor the memory of Jesus. It’s a normal reaction—this need to do something! Steve Lopez, for example, knows that instinct. He has tended a roadside memorial in Arizona where his wife, daughter and granddaughter died in a 1999 traffic accident. He comes periodically to pull weeds and clear litter from that spot where his life changed forever. After every winter storm, Brad Tackett shovels snow from a roadside memorial in Queensbury, New York, that honors the memory of a high school classmate who died in a crash. Like Mary and Mary, it is all they can think to do. They want people to know they remember and care. But before they can get to Jesus’ body, they’re greeted by an angel who tells them they don’t need to bother with the oils and the spices because Jesus is no longer in the tomb. He has been raised from the dead. The Marys run to tell the disciples what they have seen and heard, and along the way, they are met by the resurrected Jesus. They want to hold onto him, but Jesus redirects their notion and desire to do something—first anoint, then cling to him—into doing something else: Go and tell the others. The one they thought was dead is alive again. And He’s still calling them all to do what he has always called them to do. Their motivation to do something is redirected—redirected toward sharing a message that death never has the last word—that healing and wholeness comes.
All of us are like the Marys in some ways. When faced with a life changing event that leaves us broken and in pain, we react and respond with disbelief, confusion, panic about forgetting, and even the drive to do something to make the pain stop. And our instinct to mark and remember life-changing events is a good one. Mary and Mary went to the tomb of Jesus to mark the spot where their lives had changed. They wanted to remember and honor the one who had so significantly altered the trajectory of their lives. Families and friends erect and care for roadside memorials at crash sites to mark the spot where their lives changed forever. We all seek to honor and remember those we have loved and lost. On Easter Sunday, we, too, come to remember the moment when life changed forever. We come to remember that Jesus, the one who cares for us, who loves and accepts us even when it seems no one else does, has been raised from the dead. He is alive! Death has been defeated. Life wins. Thus, no memorials are needed. Except one. Our lives.
By following Jesus, by giving Jesus our very lives, we offer living memorials to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…” For the ancient disciples, following Jesus did not end at the cross; they followed Jesus even after the resurrection. They were to follow, to feed the flock, to baptize and make disciples. They were to love their neighbor, welcome the stranger and refugee, they were to offer compassion and forgiveness and hope for new life. They had work to do, and all of it would help them to remember and to honor—it would make them living sacrifices, living memorials, of the birth, life, death, and now resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Throughout the season of Lent we have focused on a moving from places of brokenness to a place of healing and wholeness. It has been a fitting theme because we are all broken people living in a broken and fragmented world. We all have memorials to tragic times—whether they are roadside descansos, gravestones, old phots, or pain that still stings our hearts and minds. We as followers of Christ were not promised pain would never be part of our faith—Good Friday showed us that truth. But what we have been promised is that the pain, the tragedy, even the death—would never get the last world. We have been promised that what we believe to be unhealable brokenness can in fact be healed, and we can be made whole. And that is the memory and the remembrance we are called to memorialize. Not just with symbolic icons and holy spaces—but through our lives, as living memorials of brokenness made whole. The one who has shown us resurrected life calls us to share this new life with others. We are to tell, and show others what he has done for us and offer them the love, grace and opportunity for healing we have received from him.
So may we… May we not try to ignore or hide from our pain. May we remember our brokenness, and seek to act upon it, but appropriately—as those aware that death never gets the last word. And in doing so, may we honor our Lord and Savior Jesus, who changed our lives, forever. Jesus is alive and calling us to follow him still today. Death has been defeated. Life wins. No decansos of loss, brokenness and pain needed—because we are living memorials of healing and wholeness. Amen.