I'd enjoyed a wonderful Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day with my family and friends. Little did I know how important the meaning of this final Holy Day was going to be when I returned home.
My sunburn from Family Day at the beach still stung as I walked through my front door. I wished we hadn't had to leave so quickly after services on the Last Great Day, but my brother and I had to be back at school the next day.
I heard a car in the driveway and thought it was just my father pulling into the garage after unloading our suitcases. I was surprised to hear my friend's voice in the living room.
I ran to greet her, full of stories from a week away from school. But before I could get close, I could tell something was wrong.
While I was gone, our friend Tony had been in a car accident with his family, she told me. Someone ran a stop sign on a country road near their house and hit their car. His parents were out of the hospital. One of his younger brothers was fine; the other had emerged from a coma that day.
Tony was dead. He wasn't wearing his seat belt and was ejected from the car. The doctors took him off life support yesterday. He was only 16 years old, my age.
We talked for almost half an hour, though I don't remember a word of it. A random thought popped into my head: The homecoming football game and dance were this week. There would be no more homecomings for Tony. No proms. No college. No family. Nothing.
I trudged back to my room, making a halfhearted effort to unpack. Littered with Jekyll Island sand, my suitcase mocked me. After staring into the bag for a while, I gave up and went to bed. You usually get a chance to ease back into the world after the Feast, I thought. Reality sank in a little more harshly that year.
I didn't get much sleep that night. I cried until I was numb. How could God let this happen? It wasn't fair. People are supposed to die when they are old, not when they're still in high school. How could this happen when I was gone? I would have prayed for him if I had only known. Would God have even cared? Would it have made a difference?
The rambling, rapid-fire questions continued in my mind through the night. Then a chill went down my spine. Had I left without saying good-bye? A trickle of tears started, then a river. Would I ever see Tony again?
A nagging voice popped up in the back of my head: You know you will. Did you just spend an entire week at the Feast and learn nothing? It wasn't just a trip to the beach. I turned on my reading light and pulled my Bible and notebook for sermon notes out of my suitcase. The scriptures should be easy to find; they were the last ones I'd written down.
I didn't know whether Tony went to church or considered himself a Christian. But either way, I knew he still had a chance, according to the Bible. Revelation 20:5 says that God will resurrect the rest of the dead—those who didn't have an opportunity to know God's way—after the thousand-year reign of Christ, assisted by true believers.
The next scripture I had scrawled in my notes was Revelation 20:12. It spoke of the billions of people who had ever lived being brought back to life and having the opportunity to learn God's truth and live His way. This includes people who were born before Christ's time (and could have never heard about Him) and children who were born in foreign countries where the Bible was outlawed.
It also includes my Great Aunt Jo, who seemed misguided, though sincere, about her religion, and the boy in my eighth- grade class who had committed suicide after years of teasing and ridicule. This was the real meaning behind the Holy Day I'd just celebrated.
I flipped to the last verse in my notes: Revelation 21:4. I was reminded that after the fulfillment of the Last Great Day, God will rid the world of sorrow and pain. He Himself will wipe away the tears. Since I had shed more than a couple over the past few hours, this hit home. God cared. Suffering in this life was a result of man's actions, not God's. And when the time is right, God will be there to heal.
I closed my Bible, finally ready for sleep. I'd have to be at school in five hours. Now maybe I'd be a little more prepared for the difficult days that lay ahead.
A funeral was the last place I had expected to be Homecoming Day, but I found myself that morning in the pine pews of a country church. I was uncomfortable. Besides the sadness, I had never attended a Baptist funeral before. Still, I knew what to expect. The pastor would preach that Tony was looking down on us from heaven. But I knew that teaching was nowhere in the Bible. The Bible compares death to unconscious sleep—awaiting the resurrection.
As the preacher started explaining that Tony was with God, watching all of us, I thought how little consolation this belief really offered. He would have seen his father hobble up the stairs, forced to walk with a cane from injuries he had suffered in the accident. Next to his father sat Tony's younger brothers, all in tears. If he were really looking down from heaven, what could he do to ease their suffering? What a terrible feeling that would be.
I remembered my reading from the other night. God wasn't cruel. During the rest of the service, I rehearsed the scriptures in my mind. What a blessing to understand God's real plan for mankind.
Still, I cried as they moved Tony's coffin from the hearse to the burial plot. For now, I'd miss his bright, sunny smile and his practical jokes. Even that stupid Yankees cap he insisted on wearing among the sea of Cleveland Indians fans. It's okay to cry, I told myself.
After a prayer and a word from Tony's father, the service was over. I took a red carnation from the top of the coffin and walked away. Time was running short. My friends and I had agreed to meet for dinner before the homecoming dance, to talk about Tony's life, to get a little closure and to give ourselves permission to try to have fun that night. Tony would want it that way. Maybe I'll even tell Tony about it someday.
Vertical Thought magazine