Altars for the Saints

A Day of the Dead Altar, Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington, DC
A Day of the Dead Altar, Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington, DC

A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 2, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, and Matthew 5:1-12.

Today in our church and in many Christian Churches, we are celebrating All Saints’ Day. But in Mexico, and for many Latinos in this country and elsewhere, November 2 is El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It’s a day for remembering loved ones who have died, for visiting graveyards and cemeteries, and for creating a house altar that remembers a relative. It’s become so popular in our culture and there’s even a new animated movie that uses the Day of the Dead as its story.

The celebration of the Day of the Dead probably arose out of a blending All Saints and All Souls along with old Aztec traditions, and continues to change as people fill it with life and love. Across cultures, these days at the beginning of November are thought to be especially “thin” days, days when the separation between life and dead can perhaps be crossed. And so, altars and offerings are made for loved ones, in case they should come back to visit.

The altar that one makes for a relative might be simple, sometimes just having two levels, representing heaven and earth. A three-level altar might represent heaven, hell, and earth, or the Holy Trinity. And then there’s a seven-level altar, which might reflect the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, or the seven levels of eternal life according to an Aztec system. Marigolds are like light and help guide the souls of the dead. Salt purifies from temptations. Water quenches the thirst of the dead relative when they return. Special bread is there to be enjoyed. Candles give light, and there are other symbols—sometimes general and sometimes specific to the person being honored.

I love the Day of the Dead traditions. The decorated skeletons and skulls are funny, the special bread is good to eat, and the whole acknowledgement and celebration of the beloved dead seems healthy in a way that is not always the case in majority United States cultures.

While creating an altar for a loved one can be a good expression of grief, a way to involve children in the cycle of life, and can simply be colorful and fun—in some ways, our task as Christians is to create spiritual altars. Through reading scripture, reflecting on it, and reflecting on the lives of those who followed Jesus Christ, have died, and have risen again—we create altars of faith that give us strength and offer us guidance. The scriptures for today show us how that works.

The reading from the Revelation of John pictures all the saints who have endured the ordeal they were given. For some that might have been a heroic life. For others, it might have been a quieter life. But they have won, they have risen, and they are in a place of eternal joy and wonder, in the presence of God. It’s this passage of scripture that gives us those beautiful words that sustain so well at the time of death, that ones we love “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat…” The Lamb will be their shepherd, guiding them to “springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” For our spiritual altar, we might pull from this first reading at least two characteristics of the ongoing Christian life, the life beyond life: there is community, a gathering of people. In eternal life, we are not alone, but with others in a way that completes us, that balances and resolves. Also, there is the constant presence of God, a presence symbolized by the Lamb of God, the term used for Jesus, but also the very fullness of God in Unity and in Trinity.

The psalm adds other qualities for a spiritual altar that celebrates the dead and accompanies us in life. The psalm repeats the image of light and underscores that all our hungers, all our strivings, are met in heaven. “Those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good.”

And especially from the psalm we’re reminded of God’s protection, “the angel of the Lord encompasses us,” surrounds us, holds us, and keeps us safe.

The Letter of John reminds us of our adoption at baptism. We are children of God. No matter how old we get, no matter how far we might stray, we are always gathered back into God’s arms as God’s beloved children.

In our Gospel we hear the familiar words known as the Beatitudes, the blessings. The blessings come through Christ, straight from God, and there appears to be no holding back. Christ enumerates the various people who will be blessed, but I don’t think it’s meant to be heard as an itemized listing, something to check of the extent to which we might be blessed, or still need to perhaps be “persecuted for righteousness sake.” I think Jesus is basically describing some of the things that happen when one lives a life rooted in Christ. People will sometimes misunderstand our motives. They might, in fact, persecute us, and in some parts of the world this is happening right now, as it always has. And so blessed are we all, who do the best we can to follow Jesus Christ – to be peacemakers in the midst of conflict, to be mourners in the face of those who would deny loss and death, to be show mercy in a culture that runs on vengeance.

The scriptures help us build an altar of faith made up of community, the presence of God, and safety. An altar of faith includes our identity as God’s children and as blessed. And throughout the readings, throughout the images of scripture, again and again, we’re told that all earthly hunger and thirst is met, quenched, filled, satiated.

As we’ve reflected on the scriptures, I’ve been imagining a spiritual altar, with steps that lead us to God. That altar might be slightly different for each one of us, some steps being there because we need them especially, some steps seeming steeper than others, and a few quite easy. We always and forever have that spiritual altar, but it begins in real life, here and now, with our physical altar. At this altar, we share food and drink that gives us a taste of heaven. It’s an appetizer of everlasting life, joining in a feast that has already begun in heaven.

The new animated movie that is filled with happy skeletons and skulls in a colorful wonderful afterlife is appropriately named, I think. Though the story is about the Day of the Dead, the movie is named “Book of Life.” And that’s where the story we’re telling comes from. As our Prayer Book reminds us, “In the midst of life, we are in death; [but] he that raised up Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies.”

The Communion of Saints surrounds us in a great cloud of witnesses and even as we remember them, they are praying for us. They are flooding us with peace, with strength, and with laughter, and with love. May we know their closeness this day and always. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s