theme of mystery has come up in various ways lately, especially as we
feel this seasonal turn of the earth toward the colder and darker. As
the earth becomes more veiled in darkness, we enter a mysterious part of
Our worship focus this month is ‘mystery:’ the mystery that is the cycle
of birth, life, and death; or, as our Call to Worship identified this
cycle, a cycle of the known and the unknown. The mystery of this life
cycle is at the core of what it means to be religious. As the Rev.
Forrest Church, who died about a month ago, once explained, ‘religion’
is that cultural experience that is the human response to the awareness
of being alive and the reality of dying. Our worship theme of mystery
this month is really about the religious journey of life and death.
This week I attended a two-day retreat for ministers that was called a
‘seasonal retreat,’ focused at this time of year on autumn. The retreat
was organized around the notion that spirituality is influenced by the
natural cycles of the earth. We are influenced by seasonal cycles when
we block out special time such as for retreats, as well as in our daily
routines. We are aware of the seasonal cycles. Here we are today on
November 1, half way through autumn. On this first day of a new month,
we here at CUUC join with many other religious people around the world
in this ageless seasonal ritual of the Day of the Dead.
This half-way point in autumn is in some sense a nowhere point. We are
halfway between the life that was the harvest and the death that will be
the frozen ground. We are in this liminal space, as it is called. This
is a border zone. A transitioning point like this is an important place
in our spiritual life. We have come from life, with the fruits of the
harvest perhaps still evident on our tables and in our refrigerators,
but we are also able to look ahead toward winter’s dormancy and quiet.
On a hump like this, we may feel unsettled because of the vagueness of
where we are: some days the weather is warm and hints of more growth,
but other days it is cold, heading for the unknown winter still before
us. This time of year usually is an unsettled point in terms of weather
and also perhaps in our personal lives. However, periods of unsettlement
also carry the potential for hope because of new insights and directions
we can find by living in these border land places.
Thus, it has come to be in many cultures around the world that November
1 is a time to create rituals involving life and death. Being about life
and death, these rituals help us assess this mystery that is the
religious quest. These rituals may mark a period of uncertainty, but
they also offer comfort at this time when rational belief can be
suspended as ghosts and goblins emerge through our contemplation of the
How any given culture responds to the subject of death is conditioned in
part by its theology of death. That is, our cultural practices are
influenced by our religious attitudes toward death. In western culture,
it has been relatively recently --- largely in the twentieth century ---
that the ‘end of life’ process has been detached from the home and put
into special places, often clinical ones such as hospitals. Death has
become detached from life in a way that previous generations did not
know, perhaps because death is not compatible with one of our most
popular theologies, a ‘theology’ of progress, always onward and upward.
It seems that we moderns hope that we can outrun death, or at least
avoid it, by passing it on to medical specialists.
So in many instances we have taken on a detachment from death, at best,
and perhaps a fear of death. Most primitive cultures around the world
were much more accepting of life and death as part of same cycle. Thus,
in these cultures, death was not to be so feared. Our ceremony today in
this worship service, based on ancient practice, can help re-unite us
with death as a comforting part of life.
There are many explanations for the modern attitude toward staying
detached from death. Perhaps some of this shift in attitudes toward
death, at least in American culture, actually started as early as the
mid-nineteenth century. For example, a recent study of death called This
Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, the recently named president
of Harvard University, examines how death was regarded in the Civil War.
Faust’s premise is that the over 600,000 deaths in the Civil Way altered
significantly both the way in which Americans understood death as well
as their notion of a benevolent God. Death in that war touched the life
of the living in such significant ways. Gilpin Faust’s study challenges
us Americans to examine our comfort levels with such large numbers of
dead and wounded in current wars around the globe.
In our free religious way, our theology certainly influences our
relationship with death. I suspect that for many of us, our close
connections with the earth as a source of spirituality helps us regard
death not only as a natural but a necessary part of life. Our liberal
sense of ‘afterlife’ then is the good deeds, the good work that we leave
behind after we are gone. These attitudes toward death help us approach
death nobly, as Forrest Church did.
Our free attitudes toward death also open us to practicing rituals taken
from pagan cultures such as the Day of the Dead ceremony. These
festivities are not lugubrious. They do not originate in a place of fear
or detachment from death, but instead in a place of celebration and
connection with departed loved ones. These festivities create a time
between this world and the otherworld so that the living and the dead
can meet. These encounters take on many guises and include a variety of
habits such as offerings of food to the dead to keep them happy, or
disguises of the true identity of the living if we anticipate any
distress from the dead. These disguises also open the door to all sorts
of mischief because our true identities are covered up: acting out
without getting caught, relieving tensions without revealing identities.
In being able to go to these borderland areas, we experience the merging
of known and unknown, and perhaps open doorways to personal and
So we of liberal faith join a long tradition of ancient Pagan and
Christian festivities around life and death. Let us review some of these
celebrations. Among pagans, ancient Celts marked the end of the growing
season with a festival called Samhain, which included the slaughter of
animals and the harvesting of grains. On this day that marked a New
Year, warfare also ceased and leases on land could be renewed. As long
as five thousand years ago, ancient Babylonians and Egyptians held
similar festivals. Egyptians honored the goddess Isis and her search for
her dead husband Osiris, Lord of the underworld. Her search for him is a
story repeated in many other cultures, this story of the retrieval of
the dead from down under, back to life on earth. It is the subject of
several modern operas, and, I suspect, many TV soaps. In Europe, Finns
and other northerners recognized the end of the agricultural season and
the start of winter. One Finnish festival, Kekri, included a jump into a
heated sauna, a nice touch that we here in Colorado might be inspired to
include in our Day of the Dead ceremonies.
Likewise, the early Christian church developed parallel rituals that may
have been directly borrowed from the Pagans. By the fourth century,
Christians came to honor many who were martyred for the cause of
Christianity, and then came to recognize other saints: the virgin Mary,
St. Peter, St. Paul, and more. So that by the year 800, Christianity
included an annual festival called ‘All Saints Day’ on November 1, not
un-coincidentally at the same time of year as the many pagan festivals.
It wasn’t enough for Christians to recognize their Saints. Honoring
common-folk who had died was also important. Thus, All Souls day also
entered the Christian calendar. In some locales, All Souls Day was a
holding opportunity for souls who had not yet been fully cleansed of
sins. Since they were not yet ready to enter heaven, they could spend
some time in Purgatory, with interventions from the living for that
final boost into heaven. To assist the trip, some cultures left out soul
cakes for the journey, and lights of various sorts were left on. One
English culture lighted turnips carved with scary goblin faces.Did you
ever realize how Halloween is indeed a religious experience, not only
because of how the managers of unnamed merchandise marts worship what’s
got to be huge spikes in cash register receipts at this time of year!
Remembering the dead in religious ritual is not only a thing of the
past. Rituals continue in contemporary life. Samhain continues to be a
popular festival for Wiccans around the world. Just yesterday the New
York Times carried a story about one Michael York, a retired professor
in Narragansett, Rhode Island, who planned to celebrate not Halloween
but Samhain by lighting candles on his home altar and invoking names of
loved ones who have died.
Additionally modern Buddhists and Taoists in China, Korea, Japan, and
more, continue to celebrate various renditions of All Souls Day. In
Hindu tradition, there is a Festival of Lights called Diwali, and Kali,
the creator, preserver, and destroyer goddess, is one of the favorite
Hindu deities at this time of year.
Another means of remembering the dead in contemporary culture is
ancestor worship, which is somewhat different from these various
religious rituals I’ve been describing. Ancestor worship addresses not
deities who have universal identity or coverage but common persons of
more local significance, such as biological families, tribes, and
villages. Ancestor worship also includes the honoring of living elders,
a practice that modern culture could probably benefit from doing more
of. Ancestor worship occurs today literally all around the world: in
Africa, Indonesia, China, the British Isles, Slavic countries, among
Hope and Pueblo nations; and more. Ancestor worship is a way to remember
loved ones beyond the grave. One day each of us will be someone’s
ancestor. How do you want to be remembered by those who come after you?
Writing down some attributes or gifts by which you want to be remembered
might be a useful exercise.
We in liberal faith can also engage in a different type of ancestor
worship, perhaps more properly called ancestor study, through knowing
our ancestors in Unitarian Universalist history. I have an ancestral
soul mate that I’ve told you about before: a minister name Mary, whom I
never met in person because she died over one hundred years ago.
Nevertheless, Mary inspires me everyday of my ministry. I ‘met’ Mary in
the sense that when I was in seminary in Texas I studied about the early
history of Unitarians and Universalists in that state. Now, I don’t put
out soul cakes for Mary --- I’m not even sure I’d even do that for the
likes of ancestors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Margaret Fuller ---
but I do encourage all of us to learn more of our UU history as a way of
keeping in touch with ancestors. To that end, may I remind you of our
adult education course on UU History and Heritage starting tomorrow
evening. I invite each of you to consider taking this class: All Saints
and All Souls of UU History.
There is one more modern festival to mention. El Dia de los Muertos, the
Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico and other Latin American
countries. Combining Catholic with indigenous traditions, in church and
in the home, it generally lasts two days: November 1 for remembering
children and November 2 for adults. Rev. Peter Morales, just past
minister at neighboring Jefferson Unitarian Church, grew up in Hispanic
culture in Texas. He hopes we Unitarian Universalists do not overlook
the Day of the Dead. He wrote: “We can easily miss the profound
spiritual and psychological insight that makes this celebration
powerful. A Mexican boy spending the night at this uncle’s grave has a
connection across time with his forebears that our children do not....
(Today) We are connected by the World Wide Web, cell phones, and cable
TV, [but] traditional cultures, with their mediums and ghosts and
reincarnations, have understood intuitively something we’ve repressed:
the dead don’t die, they live on.”
Day of the Dead ceremonies can include burning incense and flower petals
to create a fragrant path for the dead, special foods and breads, or
candles, all of which you will see in our ceremony here in a few
moments. Leftover food might be taken to cemeteries for hungry
ancestors, or to community food banks.
In a few moments we will begin our ceremony. I invite you to bring
photos if you have any to the altar, and to light candles and, if you
wish, name persons you are remembering.
We come to church for many reasons. We are drawn to exploring life’s
mysteries: why are we born, what do we do with this process called life,
what death is all about? Our liberal faith provides many doors through
which we can welcome those who came before us, many rituals that can
take us into borderland spaces where living and dead meet. May we all
remember to risk visiting the borderlands, and when we come back, may we
return with new insights into this process of living and dying.
MAY THIS BE SO
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