So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Observing the fervent celebrations of Halloween, an anthropologist studying American culture might add a line in a learned paper which reads:

The eve of All Saints and All Souls remains one of the great folk religious customs that unifies the otherwise fractious and quarrelsome North Americans. 

Since last Wednesday evening we have been living through a  series of events that have enormous significance for who we are as a people. The sadness is that the significance of these events seems lost to most of the population. Since last Wednesday, we have been celebrating the events of two great traditions, the tradition of Halloween and Día de los Muertos. 

The significance of both these celebrations lies in the eruption of ancient pagan folk religion, which like all folk religion lies buried underneath the brittle carapace – the hard shell of Christianity. On the 1st and 2nd of November each year, the dead-hand grip of both Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy is shattered by the eruption of  deep pagan currents running in the subterranean rivers of the collective unconscious of both Anglo and Latino cultures.

For Halloween Trick or Treating owes its origins in Samhain, the great Celtic celebration of the onset of Winter when the door to the other world opened and feasts were prepared for the souls of the dead and people protected themselves from harmful spirits through donning costumed disguises.

Following the English reformation, the celebration of Halloween was discouraged. The need for a lively celebration at this time of year was transferred to the 5th November – Guy Fawkes, which for the English marks the attempt by one Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament as part of a failed Papist plot to restore Roman Catholicism. This is the night for public celebration with bonfires and fireworks and the burning of the Guy – an effigy of the Pope.

Among the Puritans who settled in American, the celebration of Halloween was strictly forbidden because of its demonic overtones. It seems the popularity of Halloween takes root in America among the millions of Scots and later Irish who, in their own part of the British Isles, refused to abandon the old Celtic festival.

Likewise, the origins of Dia de los Muertos lie in indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. This Aztec festival of honoring of ancestors was colonized  by the Conquistadors and incorporated into the Christian festival of All Saints and All Souls. Yet, the dominant iconography and customs of the Aztecs continue to live through the Mexican celebration of this most Catholic of festivals.

On Friday night, our congregation of La Trinidad celebrated the Dia de los Muertos. I counted 17 or so from our Trinity congregations among those attending this moving celebration. For me this signifies a wonderful reality. We may be two cultures, but we are one community.  The feast of All Saints and All Souls joins us through our different and yet powerfully related celebrations. In each culture Christianity has baptized divergent pagan practices, which nevertheless express universal themes of relationship between the living and the departed.

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Human Nature expresses itself through culture. Our cultures are punctuated with small openings which allow expression of deeper psycho-spiritual needs.  We need these openings into luminescence to illuminate what otherwise becomes the mind-numbing monotony of the here and now.

Our current version of the Book of Common Prayer, compiled in 1979, has brought enormous richness to our liturgical celebrations. The strength of contemporary revisions of our liturgical life is that they emphasize the nature of community in the here and now. Yet, here-in lies a danger, equal to the strength. What the 1979 revision lost was the older version of the Prayer of Intercession which began with the haunting words:

Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church, Militant here on earth.

That odd word militant identifies who we are. We are not the whole Church, we are only the Church active in this world. The whole Church includes two other states, which the old prayerbook referred to as the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. My guess is that the vision of the three-fold hierarchy of the Church was abandoned because it is an expression of what I referred to in last week’s blog, as a medieval mindset.

Perhaps the imagery of souls having recently passed through death into the waiting room of Heaven, where they rest in expectation of eventual entry into the white-robed throng of the Saints triumphant in Paradise, does belong to the medieval mindset. Yet, its imagery expresses the truth of reality.

As the pagan elements of our great festivals continue to express, for human beings from time immemorial, life in this world is not all there that can be hoped for. In abandoning the medieval imagery of the Book of Revelation, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water.

The division between All Saints and All Souls expresses our deep human psycho-spiritual need in the face of death. All Saints is a celebration. Through our remembering the great exemplars of the Christian living, our eventual life with God; however, we, as moderns, struggle to imagine it, is, a joyful expectation!

Yet, in the face of death there is sorrow, loss, bewilderment and pain for us as those we have loved are no longer physically present to us. All Souls expresses this element of human need. Our hearts still reach out for those we have lost. Our hearts open in the urgency of prayer for those who are still achingly loved and yet no longer present to us. The vision of the Church Expectant helps us to picture them now as they wait in the hopeful expectation of becoming. We are compelled through need to pray for them as much as we are compelled through need to ask the Saints, who having already attained the joy of paradise, to pray for us. For we are all united in one Church through the timelessness of relationship – uniting militant, expectant and triumphant states of being.

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At first sight it may seem odd to us that the Lectionary appoints the Raising of Lazarus from John as the Gospel for today.  This is a powerful story in which the themes of faith and grief are linked together. Jesus confronts Mary and Martha with the need to trust, to take the risk of the leap of faith. He asks them to trust and believe in the face of how things seem to be. We see the deep humanity of a Jesus disturbed by grief and sorrow. What this shows us is that grief and faith are not incompatible but complementary.

In the Gospel story of the Raising of Lazarus, God is telling us something crucially important. God is telling us that death is a biological event, not a human event! Biology ends because it is a condition of life in the Church Militant. Humanity is a continuous event and does not end with biological death.

Human life is a process of journeying into the fulfillment of God’s Covenant made with us in Christ. This is a promise that our humanity is more than an accident of biology; it is nothing short of the promise of incorporation into the  life of the divine community that is God.

Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in the one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy son Christ our Lord: Grant, we beseech the, to thy whole Church in paradise and on earth, thy light and thy peace. Amen (Burial Service, BCP Rt I)


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