But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,[Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-4 NRSV]
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
On November 1, the church calendar calls for the observation of All Saints’ Day. It is a day when the church traditionally remembers those who have gone before us. Many gather to remember the people from that parish or congregations that have died in the past year.
In addition to All Saints, in some traditions, November 2 has become known as All Souls’ Day, or the day of the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. This day was reserved more for those lesser known faithful who paid the ultimate price for the witness of the faith, primarily the martyrs.
The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon (above) offers us hope, while at the same time recognizing the sadness we feel when a loved one dies. We cannot bypass or diminish the pain of loss. To lament and mourn the loss of family and friends is a principal element of our human existence, and it is not wise to pass over mourning lightly.
One of the most difficult aspects of living through this pandemic has been the challenge of not being able to properly say goodbye to loved ones. Public health restrictions meant that many died (and in some cases, are still dying) alone because larger, more public funerals were deemed inadvisable. All of us yearned for a more opportune time to celebrate the life of those who have been gathered into the company of saints.
My first call in ministry was as a mission developer of a Latino congregation in Canton, Ohio. It was there that I experienced for the first time the custom of El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). This is a Mexican celebration, Aztec in origin, which is also observed on November 2. It is a day to celebrate, remember and prepare special foods in honor of those who have departed.
Families make altars and place offerings of food baked in shapes of skulls and figures; candles, incense, yellow marigolds, and most importantly, a photo of the departed soul is placed on the altar.
It might sound somewhat morbid, but the Mexicans react to death with mourning along with happiness and joy. They look at death with the same fear as any other culture, but there is a difference. They reflect their fear by mocking and living alongside death. Death is laughed at in its face.
We, on the other hand, live in an age and a society which does its best in so many ways to deny the reality of death. The word itself is avoided at all costs. No one dies any more. We “lose” them. They “pass away.” They “go home to be with the Lord.” Or in clinical settings they “expire.”
We do not bury the dead or have funerals. We have a “memorial services” or a “celebration of life” at which we share fond remembrances, extended eulogies, and amusing anecdotes about the deceased that far too often replace the preaching of the Gospel. The effect of this is to avoid not only the reality of death and legitimate grief, but also the truly comforting message of the Gospel.
Jesus taught that not only do we find death in the midst of life, but we find life in the midst of death. Those who die will live again. This is what we as Christians believe and it is why even at the grave Christians can and do praise God.
God’s love surrounds and comforts God’s people, both those who suffer as well as those who care. We are not alone when we have God with us, no matter what the circumstance. Those who feel alone can be assured that Jesus is with them and will never leave them. Those who are afraid can be reminded that Jesus has already walked this way and He is near.
As we remember the faithful departed, it is also important to remember the mission of the church. Who the church is cannot be separated from who Jesus is – a community of Christ’s compassion and consolation to one another. And as the body of Christ, we celebrate that we are called and commissioned to participate in God’s ongoing and miraculous work to heal, comfort, and restore this world.