In Mexico and much of Latin American, Halloween is a relatively new holiday for children. Much like here, kids don costumes and go door to door asking for treats, “Queremos Halloween!” (We want Halloween). But while fun, it is hugely over-shadowed by the events of the following day, Dia de los Muertos. You see, Day of the Dead is the real celebration, with deep cultural roots, linking all the way back to Aztec tradition. A celebration, you ask, of death? YES! A celebration that involves people of all ages– both the living and the dead. And this is not a nightmare-ish zombies, living dead, monsters sort of celebration. This is an earnest, love-filled family affair. There are still plenty of skeletons and papier-mache skulls, but this is not a holiday about stirring up fear. Rather it is about acknowledging death as an integral part of life. One that can not be escaped. One that makes life, in its fleeting impermanence, worth living.
On November 1st, every year, families spend the day picnicking, with their deceased friends and relatives. They carry baskets of food, photographs, flowers, candles, incense, sugar candy skulls, specially baked pan de muertos (or “bread of the dead”) and other goodies up to the family burial site. There they sit, eating, chatting, building altars, kids playing, as they remember the deceased. They even bring offerings specifically for the enjoyment of those particular dead family members: favorite foods, music, cigarettes, liquor, books, toys– whatever that person loved. The dead are not made into some venerated other, they are interacted with in much the same way as when they were alive. They are still the quirky, imperfect and beloved members of the family.
But for many Euro-Americans, there is not an equivalent tradition. Some of us mark the anniversaries of these losses internally… feeling the sadness of birthdays, holidays or anniversaries that will forever go un-celebrated. Others of us just try to grieve and move-on, hoping that if we stay busy enough we don’t have to feel that loss. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave us a place to mourn OR to celebrate the memory of the people who shaped our lives. It also doesn’t give us a place to acknowledge our own mortality. And maybe this is part of why we have turned the dead into scary malevolent ghosts, brain-eating zombies, or creepy poltergeists. We are so afraid of death, our own AND that of those we love, that we have literally turned death itself into a monster.
And often, when we are not making death into something creepy, we see is as something that needs to be “beaten” or outrun. If I can just eat enough leafy-greens, or take the right supplements… If I can just walk enough miles a week or drink the right amount of red-wine (but not too much), then death won’t get me. But the problem is, death isn’t a monster. And death isn’t something that we can outrun. Sure, a healthy lifestyle is great– and it improves our quality of LIFE, but it still doesn’t provide any guarantees about longevity. Because death isn’t a punishment, and it is not a game we can win. Death is just part of being alive. And nothing we can do will keep us safe from death touching our lives.
When we DO lose someone, expectedly or not, GOOD LORD does it hurt. It really, really hurts. And it is so, so very sad… Stop, just for a second and feel that. Don’t run away, just be with it. We can’t outrun death, and when it touches our lives, it is incredibly painful. Because when we love someone (even someone who is imperfect and drives us crazy) their death leaves us with a hole in our lives– and depending on who they are to us, that hole might feel impossible to ever stitch back up. Their death leaves us forever changed.
Now today is All Saints day, the day where we as a church remember those who we have lost. Some of those losses are fresh. Just this Friday we lost David, someone many of you knew, loved and respected. His wife and two daughters, as well as his closest friends, will spend the next weeks and months trying to navigate life with a David-sized hole smack-dab in the middle of it. For others the losses are a little less fresh, but still deeply, deeply painful.
Beyond the immediate pain of loss, is the loneliness the grieving are left with. In her book, “My Year of Magical Thinking” Joan Didion describes trying to navigate the loss of her husband. For months after he is gone, she has moments of turning to talk to him, or forwarding him a funny email or thinking of a questions she wants to ask him when he gets home. Her conscious mind knows he is dead, but it will take years to fully integrate that loss. When a dear friend lost her boyfriend of many years, she talked about mornings being the worst part. Even months after he died, she would wake up and have to re-remember the loss… experiencing that stab to the gut all over again. Long after other people were ready to move on, long after she thought it was polite to keep bringing it up, she was wracked with loss and unable to connect with others around that hole.
And she isn’t alone in her experience. Often the first weeks after the death of a loved one are filled with cards, casseroles and condolences. They might even feel like some of the sweetest times of remembering and celebrating that person’s life. But as the weeks wear on, people drift away. Because, honestly, talking to someone who is grieving is uncomfortable or even scary. As a culture, we don’t know how to deal with that intensity of loss. I think that in part this is because we are so afraid of getting close to death. Being with someone who as lost a child makes us vulnerable to the reality that our children are mortal. Sitting with someone who has lost a life-partner awakens our fears of losing our own beloved. It is not that we don’t care, it is that it is too hard to sit with that grief.
In addition to the pain and the loneliness, is the way that death can be an affront to our relationship with God. And even if intellectually you KNOW that death has to happen, when you lose someone it can STILL feel like a personal. “It’s not fair,” “He was too young,” “She had so many good years still ahead of her,” “They had just gotten married.” After all, your loved one lived a good life, endeavoring to be a good neighbor, working hard and following the rules. Other people who have been far less good, have gotten to live longer. Others who had miserable marriages got to keep their spouse longer. OR maybe it even feels more personal than that, “How could you do this to me? Don’t you understand that I need him?” It is if we believe that God and Death are sitting down and making a list each week of who deserves to die.
But that notion of God just doesn’t square with the God I know. You see, as Christians, we are told that God loves each of us, exactly as we are. That God receives us no matter who we are, or what we have done, good or bad in our lives. We are told that God was with us even as we were being knit together in our mother’s womb. That God is closer, even than our own breath. But God being WITH us does not necessarily mean that God is able to intervene and CHANGE the course of life events directly.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Theologian who participated in a plot to try and assassinate Hitler– for which he was caught and eventually executed. As he sat in his prison cell, faced with the horrors of the holocaust first hand, he was forced to grapple with his understanding of who God is and how God participates in the world. As he watched innocent people being murdered, and as he awaited his own execution, he began to think that the LOVING God he knew, could not have a hand in the misery he saw unfolding around him. And when he prayed… he felt as though God was the companion sitting beside him, mourning each death fully, weeping at each loss.
At South Church, we speak often of God as love. We talk about God as the indelible bond linking us to one another and all of creation. So that when we experience love for another, it can feel like we are brushing up against something truly sacred. And we are. The love we have for our partner, the love we have for our children, for our own parents, for the friends who have touched our lives. These relationships become like a window, giving us a glimpse into the oneness of God: the oneness we all are born out of and to which we will one day return. During our lives, we can sometimes lose sight of that oneness: busyness, striving, misunderstandings, injustice, isolation… these are all ways that we feel separate. But of course, that separateness, while truly painful, is an illusion. For each of us, each life, is a stitch in the much larger fabric of creation. Each life, has the potential to be a unique and beautiful expression of God’s love.
Today we remember those we have lost, the lives that have interwoven with our own to shape us, guide us, protect us and love us. Today we remember the ways that those lives have provided windows through which we seen God’s love more clearly. We mourn these losses: with deep sadness, with anger, outrage, shock…longing, hollowness, and hunger… gratitude. And I believe, that God, is there with us as we grieve—continuing to love and connect us with that great oneness.
Yesterday I spoke with my sister who lives in New Mexico. She and her partner had just come from an event a Santa Fe non-profit called Gerard’s House. Gerard’s House describes itself as a “safe space for grieving children, teens and families.” Most of the kids who come for counseling and peer support have lost a parent, or themselves are dealing with terminal illness. Each year, Gerard’s House hosts a giant Day of the Dead Celebration with stilt walkers, face painters, great food… altars for the dead, paper flower and sugar-skull making workshops for folks to honor those they have lost. There are grief counselors as well as mariachi music and games. It is a day to gather and un-abashedly mourn AND celebrate. My sister said that it was beautiful.
Today, we are gathered together for our own day of mourning and celebration of those we have lost. Soon we will come together at the table. The place where we remember the loss of a prophet and teacher, our brother in love: Jesus. As we share the bread of life and the cup of blessings, I also invite you to call upon the spirits of those you have lost, to share the meal with us today. Take a moment to remember each of them now (close your eyes if you want): Remember their laughter, their advice–both the good AND the bad, the way they smelled, their favorite foods, the music they loved. Imagine the meal today as a picnic of sorts, shared with all of our many teachers, prophets, ancestors, departed friends and beloved family. For the love you had for each of them is a window, through which we glimpse the love of God and the oneness to which we will all return. Amen.