Today is a special day in my household. I am not allowed to forget about today. My son, Francis, has been counting down to this day for over a month, waking me up every morning to remind me to tick another day off the calendar.
I am a reluctant Halloween-celebrator who has succumbed to peer pressure - by which I mean the pressure levelled upon me by my son. But Halloween, that ghastly display of commercialism and over-sugared children, is, of course, not what we are celebrating today in church. This period, Allhallowtide, is a different kind of celebration. We are entering two weeks of remembrance—All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Remembrance Sunday. Hallowtide comes from the old English word halig, meaning holy. It is a sacred time to remember and honour those we have loved and lost.
It seems that as humans, we are hardwired to do this. In almost every culture, from almost every time, we find holy days and sacred festivals made to honour the dead. All Souls Day coexists with Mexico's Day of the Dead, India's Fortnight of the Ancestors, China's Festival of the Hungry Ghost, and many more. In Gaelic times the festival we now call Halloween was known as Samhain, a night of rituals to appease rebellious spirits when the veil between this world and the next grew thin. It was a time for ancestral spirits to visit, and traditionally, families would burn offerings and leave out food and gifts. It was a symbolic tradition, a way of saying, “We remember you. We honour who you were. You will not be forgotten.”
As Christians, we are familiar with symbolic traditions. A symbol is a promise, a sign of something more. It gives us something concrete to hold onto in the mysticism of faith. When we take communion together, we remember the promise that Christ is with us, always. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, this was both a symbol and a promise. All the people Jesus raised from the dead, including Lazarus, died again. The true promise was not in this temporary resurrection of the body, but in the 'Hope of Immortality'.
Today, on all souls day, we remember all those who have gone ahead of us and wait, just out of sight. We are reminded that we are all one body of Christ, one united church here on earth and in heaven. As C.S. Lewis described it, “Not just the church as we see her today, but the church spread out through all time and space and into eternity.”
What does it mean to be one church, here and in heaven?
We know that the universe is full of deep mysteries that we are only partially beginning to understand. I was reading, recently, a book of the letters written between Galileo and his daughter. I was struck by how deeply he wrestled with the conflict between the evidence his eyes could see and the teachings his faith had instilled. I was struck also by how lucky we are not to have to wonder about our place in the universe, and whether it is compatible with our faith. How fortunate we are to live in this age, where we can understand ourselves as the inhabitants of a small planet, orbiting a great star, dwelling in the outer reaches of a far-flung galaxy somewhere in the vastness of the universe.
But there are many other things that science does not have the answers to. We have learnt many extraordinary things - we know that our bodies consist of particles, we know that those particles are connected and interact in strange and unpredictable ways. We know that time and space are not nearly as impermeable as they appear. But in other ways, we are like Galileo, peering down our telescopes through a grainy and imperfect lens, understanding a little but mostly uncovering more mysteries than before.
The bible does not tell us, in scientific terms, the mechanics of eternity. It isn't a textbook, and it doesn't give us those kinds of answers. There is a lot in our faith that we can research, seek evidence for, and formulate arguments about. But the resurrection remains, for the most part, shrouded in mystery. Instead, we have the evidence that Jesus showed us: His love, his hope, and his promise to us.
This is why the story of Lazarus is so important.
Jesus said to Martha, 'I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.'
So as we begin our season of remembrance, we know that as Christians, we do not need to appease our dead. Our duty is a different one. We must remember, instead. To let their names be heard, to hold in our hearts how their lives entwined with ours, and to know that God cherishes them too, and their names echo across time and space, into the furthest reaches of the universe and always will.
And we can know that in every corner of the world, people have recognised and understood this duty for millennia. So tonight, when some of us may turn our lights off and pretend we're not home when the trick or treaters knock on our doors, we can still smile, knowing that no matter how distorted the holiday may have become, it starts from the same place as ours.
Remembering the ones that we love.