All Souls' Day
November 2, 2008
As we approached All Souls’ Day five years ago, we were bombarded by a whole lot of news coverage on the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who, then, had been living a semi-vegetable existence over the past so many years. Once more, the debate on euthanasia has come to the fore, although perhaps not as emotionally laden as the first time it was brought to international scrutiny back in the 70s – in the much-talked about case of Karen Quinlan. (For those of you who are not old enough to remember, well … ask your by now middle-aged parents!).
As we approached All Souls’ Day, too, the news reports five years ago, constantly reminded us about the phenomenon most of us would rather not talk about, but which we simply cannot avoid. The case of the trial of the infamous sniper-duo, an adult man and a boy so young yet already so corrupted by the older partner, the steady trickle of deaths taking place in ambushes and terrorist-inspired attacks in Iraq, - why, the case of Terri Schiavo herself – all these put us face to face with something we ordinarily would not want to be talking about – death and dying. In the Philippine context, even as I write, a number of what we might call senseless deaths of even prominent individuals, caused by the recklessness and insensitive imprudence of abusive, murderous drivers of public buses, has been hogging the headlines, exactly like the news of about 800 people who perished in a sunken boat just last June 2008 gripped the whole nation for weeks and months on end.
And yet, the liturgical celebration we are having in Church today puts us all right into the heart of what our faith ought to consider not as something to be denied or ignored, not as something to be talked of in hushed tones, but as something to be integrated in the totality of our faith and life as Christians.
After all, we are all followers of Christ who himself went the way of all flesh. He, too, suffered and died, that is, he “was like unto us in everything except sin.”
The world, deeply steeped in a culture that emphasizes the here and now, the present, the quantifiable and the measurable, that which makes all of us value what we can do and produce and achieve, is loathe to be talking with any appreciable degree of ease about dying, and leaving, and letting go of whatever we hold dear – most of the time material goods and worldly success. In the words of Bishop Anthony Bloom, most of us “live in only two dimensions,” the here and now. We forget the third, which is the “hereafter.”
Nowhere is this tendency more visible as in the pagan-inspired celebration of “Halloween.” Since death and dying is something we do not accept readily and welcome with alacrity, we transform what is basically unacceptable into something that comes closer to familiar territory. We transform it into a carnival! How else neutralize the potentially harmful sting of death and the mysterious process of crossing over into the realm from which no one has ever come back to tell us what we all long to know? Make the event into something memorable, something worth spending time and money for … why, transform the fear into something more manageable by changing it into a cabal, a masquerade party, a worldly celebration!
Ironically, this is also what we do today in the liturgy. We celebrate the passing over into new life of all those who have gone ahead of us, those who sleep the sleep of death, but for a different reason, and definitely in a far different style and manner.
For when the Church celebrates, when Christian believers celebrate, it is never because of fear. When the faithful celebrate, it is never because of the desperate desire to hide even from our very selves the reality of death and dying, but to embrace this very event that the Church sees, not as something that ends life, but one that transforms life. We pray in the Preface of Masses for the dead: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” When we as believers and members of Christ’s body the Church celebrate, we do so not because we want to forget and anesthetize ourselves albeit temporarily from the possibility of one day having to let go of this worldly life, but because we precisely want to remember. We celebrate, not to forget, but to remember!
We remember the oft-repeated theme of death through life that shines out in almost every book of the Old and the New Testaments. We remember the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, who, as they escaped, were already given up for dead by the pursuing Egyptians. We remember the Israelites as they languished in a state of what appeared to be partial death, or the process of a slow death of people wandering aimlessly in the desert, far from their homes, far from the food they loved, far from the pots of meat they got so used to in Egypt. We remember the “death” of a people brought to shameful exile in Babylon. We remember the so many times, powerful men and powerful nations sought to crush to death a determined people so committed to bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth, despite the pain, despite the persecution, despite all the odds stacked against them. We remember the saints and martyrs who, while dying bodily, actually brought new life of hope to millions who looked up to them during their own earthly Passovers of suffering, death and new life. We remember Christ, the Good Shepherd, the suffering servant, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness … he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8)
Yes, our celebration in Church is an anamnesis, a memorial, a special remembering! It is a memorial that, whilst based on the past and grounded on the present, is focused a whole lot more on the future, on what lies ahead. It is a remembrance that does not produce regret, but a forward-looking and forward-moving active memorial that makes what is past, a present unfolding reality that at the same time, speaks so glowingly of what is to come.
In a word, it is a celebration of hope.
Today, we remember all our deceased relatives, friends, fellow believers and all those who have died and gone ahead of us – all the faithful departed. And we do the remembering most especially in the context of a sacrificial memorial that has become an efficacious sign and reality of the gradual transformation taking place in our personal and communal lives that is salvation. Memory and reality jell and mould together as we gather to worship and praise Him who commanded us to “do this in remembrance of me.”
I am sure each one of you here has in his personal memory bank a list of names of people you love dearly, people who have touched your lives deeply in some way, people who have brought a little piece and a small reminder of heaven, who offered somehow to others a glimmer of hope, a ray of joy and a whole of happiness to other peoples’ lives. Perhaps they were individuals who suffered silently whilst on earth, perhaps they also made you suffer a little in some way, or who may even have convinced you in a negative way to strive to live better Christian lives, by their good examples, or even the lack of it. In many different ways, they have lived their lives in a way that made us remember what life is all about, why God has created us, and what this earthly life is headed for ultimately.
Today is a swell time for us to remember … our beloved dead, the martyrs of the Church, all the named and unnamed saints who constitute what our Christian tradition calls the “Church triumphant” for whose honor the Church on earth has dedicated yesterday, November 1. We remember all those who have died but who still may need our prayers, those whom Christian tradition calls members of the “Church suffering.” And we remember one another, members of the “Church militant,” who are still struggling, trying to make sense of so many things we go through in this world that is so full of questions and uncertainties. We pray for each other that we may be as strong in the faith as those whose memories we keep and treasure today, that when our day comes, we may pass the supreme test and be able to claim along with St. Paul: “I have run the race, I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith.”
This song by Marty Haugen, a favorite of mine, seems to encapsulize these thoughts and would, therefore, best conclude this reflection:
And still we celebrate, for you are with us here;
And we believe that we will see you
When you come in your glory, Lord
We remember, we celebrate, we believe.
1. Here a million wounded souls are yearning to touch you and be healed
Gather all your people and hold them to your heart.
2. Now we recreate your love, we bring the bread and wine to share a meal.
Sign of grace and mercy, the presence of the Lord.
3. Christ, the Father’s great “Amen” to all the hopes and dreams of every heart,
Peace beyond all telling, and freedom from all fear.
4. See the face of Christ revealed in every person standing by your side,
Gift to one another, and temples of your love.