In Mexican culture Day of the Dead is a festival to honor and pray for family and friends who have died and support them in their continuing spiritual journey. It recognizes that life does not end in death but continues. Though I don’t know much about this festival, from what I’ve learned it derives separately from the Catholic All Saints’ Day tradition, which was yesterday. (Those of you who know this better can correct me if I’m wrong!) But I find this fascinating, that at the same time of year, in separate parts of the world, from separate cultures, similar traditions evolved honoring the lives of people preceding us in death believing there is life beyond the grave. The Ecclesiastes scripture is true, “God has put eternity in the hearts of people.”
Yet, beyond the yearning to believe there is more to this life, why else might such traditions be important? No doubt the desire to respect and preserve the traditions we inherit is a part of it, but even more, it seems such observances challenge us to think about the legacies we are leaving and the direction of our own journeys. Like the old adage goes, “Begin with the end in mind.” When we know where we want our lives to end up, we choose those actions that take us there.
On this Day of the Dead, and day after All Saints’ Day, do you have “saints” in your life who died in the faith? What exactly do you celebrate about them? Even in the grief of their not being physically present with you, what would you not trade the world for because you had them in your life? And now the clincher, what might they be praying for you?
A professor of mine in seminary used to ask that question this way: “Who is in your balcony?” He said in the churches he served the balcony was often closed because it wasn’t needed except for special occasions. When he preached and looked up at an empty balcony he used to imagine former professors, pastors, and family members sitting there, supporting him. Their example and lessons that shaped him were present, not to critique, but support and cheer him on. He said, “Always remember, you have people in your balcony!”
That is perhaps a subtle nuance I would give to the Day of the Dead celebration. This is a good week of the year to remember we not only support them in their ongoing spiritual journey, they are supporting us in ours!