Psalm 130 or Psalm 116:10-17
Wisdom 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 or 1 Corinthians 15:50-58
We die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight and the third when our name is spoken for the last time. — Mexican saying
All Souls’ Day is the celebration of the common saints of the world. It is a day of remembrance of people that may not be recalled for their holy or heroic deeds and lives but who were part of the family of God by virtue of having been born into God’s creation. They lived among us, struggled like we do and may have performed a minor miracle or two at some point in their lives just nothing spectacular. Those we most remember on All Souls are those who may have had hearts of gold but feet of clay, or perhaps hearts a bit more like lead and feet of iron. Still, if someone remembers them and their name, especially remembering them with kindness, they have not died that third time.
We can credit Odilo, a French Benedictine abbot of the great monastery of Cluny, with initiating a special day for remembering and praying for those who had died and who were in the process of purification (purgatory) before entering heaven. It was a place like the ritual mikvah bath or baptismal font/pool where the soul went in stained and came out purified only possibly with fire rather than water. Purgatory is still on the books in the Roman Catholic Church but not for Episcopalians and some other non-Roman churches. It is simply a day of commemoration for those who have died but who still live in our memories and whose names we still speak. In parts of Mexico El Dia de los Muertos brings family members to cemeteries to tidy up the graves and either stay all night celebrating the lives of their relatives or else leaving gifts of food and drink for the dead. It’s a night when it feels as if the veil between this world and the next is as thin as gossamer.
It may seem strange to think of the dead as revisiting the earth partying through the night with those who come to visit their graves or who leave gifts so that the souls can celebrate as well. Cemeteries are supposed to be quiet places, cities of the dead left to the dead except for occasional visits on special days like birthdays or the like. Many of us in the U.S. are afraid of death, our own and that of others. We’re uncomfortable thinking about death much less being in the presence of death and the dying. But death is also a kind of companion, one that countless elderly folk have welcomed when, as dear as life is to them, it becomes more difficult and more painful to continue day after day in a condition where there is little dignity and probably a lot of pain of one kind or another. Death is both enemy and friend.
We go to wakes and viewings and generally hurry away. We’re glad for closed caskets at funerals because that gives us some distance from death even if we are hearing about it throughout the service. We want to remember the person as the living, breathing, joyful presence we knew even if we have to stretch our mental and emotional confines a bit to do it. We want to consider them as, in the words of the Prayer Book, “…a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming” (BCP, p. 499). We commend them to God and then relegate them to our private memories that we may share with others although often we reserve something of their essence within ourselves that we treat like a precious jewel and for us alone.
With All Souls, we may stop for a bit and remember those common saints, the generally unknown ones, who were a lot like us, warts and all but still loved by us and beloved by God. We’re told we’re all saints, as hard as that is to believe, and one day possibly someone will add our names to the list of those read at the services held in the church on the evening of November 2nd. For them, the third death will be held in abeyance for yet another year because someone remembered to name them at that special time and place.
I think of my own everyday saints, the ones on my personal list for November 2nd. Most of them are family who adopted me legally but others are folks who sort of grafted me into their own families. There are a lot of them, and with each name I repeat, they escape the third death for yet another year. It isn’t hard to think of them with love and kindness, for that is what they showed me, headstrong little brat that I was. They were the first saints I ever really learned about, other than the gospel writers and maybe St. Patrick chasing snakes out of Ireland. I didn’t know they were saints until much later when I learned about the canonized ones. I just thought they were great souls, wonderful people, excellent examples and loving folks. They all have faced the first death and then we have faced their second ones. I pray that as long as I live, they will be saved from the third death, that of being forgotten.
Eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Give to your whole Church in paradise and on earth your light and your peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have served you here and who are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (BCP p.253)