The Day of the Dead... and the Living
We write this on Halloween -- a day celebrated with greater glitz and hype in recent years. Like other popular celebrations, American culture has appropriated Halloween and stripped it of its deeply human and spiritual dimensions.
Ancient Celtic and Latin American cultures rooted their celebrations in the reality of death and new life. The earth experiences its autumnal dying -- leaves falling from trees, summer's green turning to vibrant colors, then to brown and finally barren branches. At least that's what many places experience this time of year. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, we see the dying of the light and shorter, cooler days. Our ancient ancestors also saw the connection between the world we live in and the next life, a communion between the dead and the living.
This connection found a place in the Church's tradition early in our history. A celebration of all the saints began at least as early as the 400s (though on a different date), and the connection of All Hallows or All Saints to this date (November 1) dates to the 700s, linking it to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. Mesoamerican culture celebrated a similar holiday and connected it to our Christian holiday, called Dia de Los Muertos -- the Day of the Dead.
What our ancestors knew, and what our culture masks with its flashy celebrations, is that death is part of life. The death of the natural world in autumn makes us recall our own mortality. But as Christians, we know that our lives are not our own. We all will die, but we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and that all who have gone before us are part of a pilgrimage of expectation. We all await that "great getting up morning," as the old spiritual puts it. The question for us becomes: in the midst of death, how shall we live? How do we carry on the Gospel mission handed on to us from our mothers and fathers in the faith as we travel towards the day of Christ's return in glory, when all creation will be made new?
At St. John's we incorporate these ancient practices in our annual All Saints altar, called an offrenda in Spanish, to remember those we have loved and lost, but now wait in hope for us to complete our pilgrimage until the consummation of all things happens in a time and way only God can conceive.
It makes sense that we, as liturgical Christians, take the names and memories of those who have died and process them to the high altar where our Lord is present in the Blessed Sacrament. We commend them to the hands of a loving God, but also see our lives as part of that great procession -- our pilgrimage through this world connected to those who already have gone before us. As we make that journey, how will we make God's Kingdom a bit more present? how will we allow the peace, compassion, love and kindness of God to shine through our lives? The great panoply of the saints urges us on and waits to welcome us at our journey's end.