Friday, November 2, 2018
Día de Muertos
The first time I heard about Día de Muertos, long before the film Coco came out, was in ninth-grade Spanish class. As Halloween approached, our teacher, Sra. Skidmore, made us decorate objects for a classroom ofrenda, as we adopted the Mexican tradition of building an altar and decorating it with sugar skulls, favorite candies (no tequila or mezcal allowed in high school), and pictures of dead relatives so that the spirits of our ancestors would be enticed to come and visit with us on November 2, All Souls' Day. Even though I had some high-church leanings, as a lifelong Methodist, I found the whole thing rather suspect. Forget the religion-in-public-school issue. I wondered how this bizarre blend of pagan practice, witchcraft, ouija boards, and Christianity hadn't long before been stamped out by the Inquisition. It turns out, however, that Día de Muertos, which we celebrate today, is all about the holiness of love and longing.
There is something fundamentally human about missing so much our loved ones who have died that we want to find ways to stay in touch with them. When Spanish conquistadors came to the New World in the 16th century, Día de Muertos was already happening among the indigenous people in southern Mexico. They did not need Christianity to express their desire to commune with the spirits of their ancestors. Naturally, the European colonists with their codified religious beliefs were as suspicious as I was, so they outlawed the celebration, which is why the practice did not spread to the north of Mexico until the twentieth century. Eventually, however, authorities in the church recognized that the indigenous practice was simply a way to remember those who have died, to celebrate their lives and their memories, and to pray for them. And that is something that the church has always done because the desire to remain close with those who have left this life is always born out of love.
As an Episcopalian who was formed mostly in the Protestant part of our tradition, I always carried a little bit of suspicion about All Souls' Day and our practice of praying for the dead until a mentor explained to me what I already knew in my heart: we pray for those who have died because we love them. The love we have for our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons does not end at the grave. We hold them up to God in prayer because we love them and because our love does not die.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ--God's great victory over death--our prayers are not wishful thoughts, empty hopes for a connection that has been lost forever. Instead, they are expressions of a faith that lives on beyond the deaths of those we hold dear. Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life." Today, we remember those for whom that promise is true. We bring their names into our minds and their memories into our hearts because we love them, and, because we know that God loves them, we believe that they are still alive with God until we are untied with them and all the faithful.