DAYS OF THE DEAD
(With Thanks and Apologies to Sam Portaro+ who first shaped most of these reflections)
I remember sitting in my office one Sunday after church with a man who had a question. “Why do we pray for the dead?” he asked. “The Bible doesn’t tell us to pray for the dead, so why do we do it? It makes no sense.”
It was one of those timeless moments. The air is still, time stands still, you almost stop breathing. If you are a priest and pastor you are expected to have the answer. You want to have the answer. You feel as if you should have the answers to all such questions. And then you freeze. A kind of fear sets in. A fear of not saying just the right thing that will move the person in front of you to a deeper more hopeful faith.
I have no recollection what I said to my inquisitor. No doubt I mumbled a few things about God in Christ being the God of the living and the dead, or some things about eternity and what we call the community of saints in heaven. I just don’t remember. Because those who are dead and have gone before us are praying for us is what I should have said.
All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls – October 31, November 1 and November 2 every year - three days in our calendar of Christian days which call us to look death in the face. On All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we laugh at death. We mock death. We make merry in a world that looks less and less funny every day. But we put on our costumes, paint up our faces, put on our masks and look at death and all the troubles of this world and we laugh.
It is a crazy kind of laughter that comes of both surprise and fear. We would rather not talk about this fear, but it is just this fear that we commemorate the last day of October and the first two days of November. The chilly winds of winter begin to chill our weary bones, the trees and all of nature echo themes of death and dying. Little ghosts, skeletons, hobgoblins and vampires move us to laugh, for such laughter is our way of averting fear.
So on Halloween we snicker at death, race through graveyards, dress up in hopes of fooling the grim reaper so as to be protected for yet another year. We need not run from our fear, but so often we do. And on this night we run after our fears as if to chase them away!
We want to believe that human flesh and human being is blessed, but we are not so sure of incarnation, so Christmas becomes a thing of material gifts and nostalgic ephemera. We want to believe that the power of life and love will triumph over the power of death, but we are not so sure of resurrection, so Easter becomes a thing of fuzzy bunnies, candy and spring fashion. We want to believe life is eternal, but we are not so sure of eternity, so this autumn season of spooks and saints and souls has become a thing of leering pumpkins and sugar candies.
But it is not incarnation, nor resurrection, nor eternity that we fear – it is disappointment. We do not want to hope in vain. This is why these three days are so precious. Christians have no unique perspective on love – there are many gospels of love, and most world religions teach love at least as well as we do, if not better. We have no unique take on faith, since all world religions, governments and economies depend on faith – for no God can inspire, no government can rule, no commerce can work without genuine faith. But where else is hope?
We Christians dare to hope beyond the constraints of mortality. We are those people who have the example of Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus lies dead in a tomb for several days. “Lord, there is a stench,” says Martha. Yet, rather than be paralyzed by their sadness and fear, with their brother dead and buried, they still come to Jesus, go to Jesus, run to the edge of town to greet Jesus with a curious mixture of anger at his delay in coming, but also a deep hope that he can and will bring their brother back from the dead. And, he does.
For others such hope is hedged. Hope is where many others draw short. Some constrain life to this earthly existence depending on the flesh bound, time-bound existence of reincarnations. Others hope in a painless consignment of the soul to everlasting nothingness.
But we Christians hope beyond mortality, our hope embodied in saints and souls who have gone before, a vast company and communion dwelling beyond time and forever. Our hope is that life is changed, not ended, and that when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.
Our hope is grounded in a faith that claims our God is creator of all that is, seen and unseen. It is a hope that proclaims that we come from love, we return to love and love is all around. It is a hope grounded in our Baptism incorporating us into the Body of Christ, a bond which is indissoluble. It is a hope that says we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, watching us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfector of our hope, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.
Faith and Hope are the qualites of mind that see things before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God, of Love, to be more dear, more substantial and more attractive than the edible and profitable present. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] And we now know that over 95% of the known universe is unseen!
It’s an embarrassment, to be sure, this faith and hope we hold dear. We have no evidence to produce beyond our stories, like the ones we gather to hear week in and week out, year in and year out. In a realm that bows to tangible security as once it bowed to wood and stone idols, we are the gamblers who stake all that we have on unproven suppositions. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, that spends its produce and its people as if there is no tomorrow, we alone dare to live as if there is a tomorrow, and more.
This is why we need these precious days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. For we know how hard it is to look death in the face and say to death, “I know I shall see you again.” But it is harder still to scan the flickering light of life’s vitality in the face of a dying friend and say, “I know I shall see you again.”
The world needs us, Jesus needs us, God needs us. They need our hope and our love. In a world that rarely shows evidence that such hope is justified, we are called to be those people who bear witness to a hope that proclaims that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. That soon we will be done with the troubles of this world and go home to be with God – with God and all those saints and souls who even now watch over us and pray for us from that place where there is no more weeping or wailing, but only Light, and Life, and Love. Amen.