Last night we hosted an observance for the Day of the Dead at 1125 S. Broad St., which is today. I was asked to give a brief expression of welcome and “why” [All Saints Day explanation]. The Day of the Dead is so full of pagan and Christian mysteries and syncretism, why would we observe it at all? I did not say all I intended, but here’s what I wanted to say about “why” to our remarkable meeting of neighbors from Puebla and Circle of Hope.
All Saints Day is about…
I am not afraid to die. Jesus died with my sin and brokenness on himself so I died with him. Then he rose from the dead, free, and walked into the future and I rose with him. That’s the basic meaning of All Saints Day. It is all about fearlessly facing death and overcoming it.
My favorite part of what I know about the Day of the Dead in Mexico is how it is all about laughing at la calaca (the skeleton) and mocking death as la flaca (“skinny” like a skeleton). I like that part for two reasons:
- It shows the resilience of the Mexican people who came up with this approach to All Saints Day.
- It encourages me that I do not need to be afraid. God is on my side. And even if I die, I am the beloved of God and God promises eternal life if I want it.
The meeting of light and dark
Many cultures all over the world traditionally believed in the past that the change from summer to winter and from light to dark created a space in the calendar when the dead communed with the living. Some people still think that the days provide a “thin space” between death and life. All Saints Day got connected to many of these traditions, for good and for ill.
All Saints Day in the Christian calendar is for celebrating all the great Jesus followers who have died—some heroically, some being put to death by the government because they would not give up their faith, some who might have just died since last All Saints Day after being very important to those who are still living.
By extension, the day became a time when people remembered all their loved ones who have passed—some people thought lost babies made a connection on Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and some believed parents and other adults visited on All Souls Day.
An interesting conjunction with Aztec culture
If I am right, the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations had a month long observance that happened during this time of the year. When the Spanish came to Mexico they found people who did not view death as the end of life, but who viewed it as a continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. So even though the Catholic Church did much to suppress Aztec beliefs, there was really a lot in common with Jesus. Jesus honors life in a body as valuable; this life is no dream. But I think he also shows us that death will be the beginning of the sleep from which we will awaken truly awake.
There is a lot more I could say about how the church has acted in the past, all the mistakes it has made and heartaches it has caused. But I do not live in the past. And I am looking forward to my eternal future. I am happy we are doing something right now that honors the past, but builds relationships for the future.
- I am happy to be here and to see if I can get some of that Mexican humor and resilience and laugh at death.
- I could use some of the Catholic and Aztec seriousness about being respectful of the dead and thankful for what we have received from them and being alive to their memory and ongoing influence.
- I don’t need to communicate with any ghosts, or hang on to my grief over who has died. But I do need to communicate with God and let Jesus sooth my grief and fears.
I prefer the celebration of All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead to be all about viva la vida: “Live life” or in my case “thank God for life.” That’s how many people celebrate it. Death has no power where Jesus lives.