All Saints, All Souls
Nov 2, 2018
Welcome to November, the month of the four last things…death, judgment, heaven, hell. They show up a lot in the liturgy this month. Appropriately, it begins with death.
The cum laude graduates of death are the saints, celebrated on November 1, those who have arrived in heaven. They are followed on November 2, All Souls Day, by those who need a little more polishing in that condition we call Purgatory (a place of cleansing). Unsurprisingly, we don’t celebrate hell or anyone there.
This procession of the four last things was immediately preceded by Halloween. This day was once supposed to be a cathartic release of the fear of death and the terrible things we tend to associate with death. Since our society does not really wish to think about death anymore (it’s the ultimate downer), Halloween has just been turned into one big party and is now a bigger deal for adults than for children. If one doesn’t believe in the last three of those last four things, then death is the most unwelcome end to the party of life, and those who have left the party are gone forever.
South of the border, in that land where an “army” of “invaders,” armed with their desperate weapons of hope and faith, are marching toward us, they are celebrating the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It is not a Mexican version of Halloween. It differs greatly in traditions and tone. Whereas Halloween began as a dark night of mischief by evil spirits, the Day of the Dead stretches over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. The theme of both is death, but the point of the Day of the Dead is to express love and respect for deceased family members. All throughout Mexico, the people celebrating this day put on makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, dance and sing. Those who have died are invited to the parties and are believed to be present.
This celebration originated several thousand years ago with the Toltec and other Nahuatl people, who regarded mourning the dead unseemly and disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was regarded as a natural phase in the continuum of life. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. So the contemporary Día de los Muertos celebration is an amalgamation of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. The timing of November 1 and 2—All Saints Day and All Souls Day—falls around the time of the autumn maize harvest.
One of the traditions of the Dia de los Muertos is brightly colored and decorated candy skulls, which definitely make a counterpoint to the dark symbolism of skulls in our tradition. The Spanish word for skull is calavera. However, the word calavera is also used to describe short, humorous poems, often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras are a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Here’s an example:
Estaba la maestra Marta fumándose un cigarrillo.
Llegó la muerte y le dijo… te acompaño con el humillo
pues yo ya no puedo fumar y si sigue así
le pasará lo mismo que a mí.
There was a teacher, Martha, smoking a cigarette.
Death showed up and said to her…I will accompany you with the smoke
because I can’t smoke any more and if you keep it up,
It will happen to you what happened to me.
Well, we don’t have the custom of inviting our dead to parties. But just like the Aztec and Maya people, we believe that the dead are still part of our community, the Church, the Communion of Saints. They are alive, in the condition of heaven…we hope; in purgatory…perhaps. We trust in the mercy of God that they are not in that other last condition. If in heaven or purgatory, they can pray for and intercede for us. And if they are in purgatory, we can pray for them and help them conclude their process of cleansing.
We don’t have to invite them, because they are now in the world of spirits, which is in some ways all around us; it is not a physical place. Our beloved dead are souls and are present with us and to us. We don’t call them up with Ouija boards or tarot cards. We communicate through prayer and the movement of spirit. In 1910, Henry Scott Holland wrote this:
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
only better, infinitely happier
and forever we will all be one together with Christ.