“He will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
If you find yourself on the streets of parts of Mexico between October 31 and November 2nd, don’t be surprised if you are swept up in a parade of brightly dressed skeletons (calacas) dancing to a rich mix of mariachi music.
If you walk by cemeteries at night in some communities, you will see graves decorated with marigolds and surrounded with candles and food. You will witness people picnicking, playing music, talking and drinking throughout the night. What you will be caught up in is a celebration of El Día de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead.
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec people who believed that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness. For them death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum; birth, childhood and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. The dead were, kept alive in memory and spirit and remained a part of the community. Today’s Día de los Muertos is a Latin American custom, which honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations; and is a combination of Aztec rituals and Catholicism brought to the region when the Spanish conquered the Americas. [i]
In addition to graveside fiestas, altars or ofrendas were built in homes to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. These altars would be loaded with offerings such as water as the spirits would be thirsty after their long journey, food that the deceased enjoyed when alive, family photos and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, there might be toys on the altar. The altar would also be decorated with marigolds and petals would be scattered from altar to gravesite to guide wandering souls back to their place of rest.[ii]
Here at Good Shepherd, we will prepare the Wayside Chapel for Dia de los Muertos. Beginning Tuesday, all are invited to stop by the chapel and write on a prayer flag to remember those who have passed.
On All Souls’ Day, it is our custom to remember those who have died in the last year and we also remember the cloud of witnesses who have gone before. My cloud of witnesses includes my family members, but also teachers, mentors and members of my church community who worshipped with me and encouraged me. Some of these relationships were complicated, filled with pain as well as joy.
All of us have such a cloud of witnesses, the stock from which we are made. Some we know well, others we may not know at all. All Souls’ Day offers us the opportunity to give thanks and to forgive those imperfect, yet loving persons who have shaped our lives. We pray for ALL souls, yes ALL. We remember the friendless, the unknown, the forgotten and the lost. We pray for those who found the weight of life so heavy that they could not imagine another year alive.
When we pray for the dead, we are hoping that by God’s grace they will not be committed to nothingness. We see them in a great multitude, among different nations and tribes, peoples and languages, robed and standing before the throne. We believe and hope that hunger and thirst are no more, no scorching heat, that they will be guided to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.[iii]
As we list the names of the departed, we do well to remember that loss that deserves notice and needs comfort comes from many places, not only death. There are some in our congregation who are struggling in varying stages of the grieving process. We grieve the loss of our independence, the loss of relationships. Loss comes from struggles with illness of both body and mind; from dreams deferred and despair, the depression or addiction that oppress us. We grieve over tragedies that are deep, serious and sometimes buried in denial.
“The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God”[iv], but so are the souls of the flawed, the damaged, the abused and the abuser, ALL saints and ALL souls. We are one community in the hands of one God. And God sees us and knows the grief that weighs down our hearts.
One of the most basic concepts I learned in Clinical Pastoral Education was the Ministry of Presence. When faced with individuals in crisis, we are often tempted to fill the painful silence with answers, or assurances that things will turn out all right. Yet most times the best thing one can do is simply be with the person, giving silent affirmation that they are not alone in their struggles. This is the ministry of presence. Pastoral Care emphasizes, “being” rather than “doing.”
We need to know that people are with us especially in times of crisis, but also in times of celebration and all the times in between. Families celebrating Día de los Muertos are present to each other as they welcome the presence of their deceased loved ones back into the community. Singing, share stories and praying brings peace to the families. In the Gospels we see Jesus bringing God’s grace to those he encounters, by being present. As Christians we are called to embody Christ. St. Teresa of Avila tells us, “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world.” Being present is one way that we can reflect the life of Jesus and bring God to those in our community. Presence is a ministry that every Christian can offer. We simply need to be there for someone. It is not just a physical presence, but also a mental and, yes, spiritual presence. When we are present reading Scripture, praying and perhaps singing, this brings peace and assures those facing challenges that they are not forgotten and that nothing can separate them from the love of God.
Your generous gifts have allowed for a curate position with emphasis on pastoral care to be filled. Our pastoral care ministry rejoices with and offers support to mothers with new babies. We provide spiritual care for the sick and homebound and through your gifts to this parish, you have helped us start two new programs to support the parents of children with addiction and those grieving the loss of loved ones. This parish has trained ten new Eucharistic Visitors so that we can bring the love of Christ and the love of Good Shepherd to more parishioners who are not able to be with us.
We are the body of Christ and each member of the body is called to have concern for one another. Jesus gave us a mandate to love one another as he loves us, and we are charged with using our gifts. We need all of your gifts; your gift of time, your gift of presence and your gift of compassion, and especially at this time of Stewardship, we are counting on your continued financial support to help build a community that believes in caring for each other.
Today we celebrate all faithful departed, recognizing that as humans, none of us are perfect. As we name our loved ones, we entrust them to God, knowing that we have the promise of Christ in the Gospel of John, the promise of unimaginable life in God beyond death. [v]We also entrust our hearts to God, all of us who mourn, all who suffer and all who are living with loss. The Good News is that as we gather here in this space to remember and to give thanks, we have the hope that the one who loved us enough to take on flesh and dwell among us will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes., “Christ has no hands on earth but ours”, so while we are here on earth, may we open our hands to help with wiping away tears from as many eyes as possible.