“We come from God and we return to God…” St. Thomas Aquinas
Today is All Saints Day, the day which follows the Celtic feast of Samhain which the church sought to Christianize as All Hallows E’en. The result is an odd mixture of Dionysian excess on Halloween followed by two days of solemn observance of the departed.
On Samhain, the fall harvest festival, the veil between the realms of the living and the dead was thought to be particularly thin and it was possible to encounter the presence of the departed as they temporarily came back to this side of the veil. A way of honoring the dead was to provide them with food and beverage, a precursor to today’s trick or treating. But if one didn’t want to encounter a particular deceased person with whom one might have unfinished business, it was best to disguise oneself, hence the beginning of the wearing of masks and later of full costumes.
The awareness of those who have died has always played a major role in this commemoration. The feast day which All Hallowed Eve (E’en) preceded was All Saints Day (Nov. 1), a day to remember the many saints of the church. But, by the 10th CE, the practice of remembering the ordinary saints, our own loved ones who had departed, began to be celebrated in a second day of commemoration called alternatively All Souls Day or the Day of the Faithful Departed, (Nov. 2). Many Mexicans will spend the night in cemeteries remembering their departed loved ones (top photo) on this Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
All the Departed
I have never found the restricting of our remembrance of the departed to those we deem to have been “faithful” terribly compelling. At some level, that is little more than self-affirmation at work – we pray for you only if you agreed with us. How silly and ultimately how petty!
Recalling those persons who have played major roles in our lives often creates a profound sense of loss. It is fitting to recognize that loss and to remember them regardless of our judgments about the state of their spiritual lives. Truth be told, if that really is one of G_d’s concerns (which, frankly, I doubt) then G_d is in a much better place to make such judgments than any of us. Indeed, in our Prayers of the People we Episcopalians routinely pray for “those who faith is known to God alone.”
It’s also no accident that our intentional remembering of the departed takes place in the context of a harvest festival. Samhain was a time of gratitude for the blessings of the harvest and the end of a successful growing season and the completion of yet another cycle of life. Every person who has played a role in our lives, whether productive, challenging, joyful or painful, has helped write a portion of the book that is our life. For that we should be grateful. And for their role in that writing, they merit our commemoration of and thanksgiving for their lives.
Who would you remember?
On this day in which all the saints are celebrated and on the eve of the day all the souls of the departed will be remembered, I ask you to think of those in your own lives who have died but before doing so wrote pages, perhaps chapters, in the book that is your life. I ask you to remember them both aloud and in the silence of your hearts. Perhaps you might light a candle to remember them and say a prayer for them. And, if you feel so compelled, feel free to remember them in this space as you see fit.
Remembering Saint Marge, my beloved Mother
I close with a prayer adapted from the Burial Service of the Book of Common Prayer:
O God of unending compassion, we remember before you this day our brothers and sisters who no longer are present in this life. We thank you for creating them and giving them to us to know and to love as companions on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, be present with us and console us who mourn their loss. Give us hope to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we return to your presence with all who have gone before us.
May the souls of all the departed rest in peace. Amen.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++