The feast of All Saints holds pride of place as a major feast in the Christian calendar and rightly so as we celebrate the great heroes of the Christian church, the doctors, the shepherdesses and soldiers who stand larger than life as exemplary characters and defenders of the church.
But All Saints day really rests in the middle of a three day celebration preceded by Halloween and followed by All Souls day in a short religious season once known as Allhallowtide. The season has an ancient feeling. On Halloween the veil between the living and the dead is lifted as the Jack O’Lanterns glow in the dark. Small ghosts wander the streets, accompanied nowadays by small Elsas and Elvises.
With the dawn comes the brightness of All Saints day, when we celebrated the Saints and Martyrs of the church. And with the final day, All Souls’ Day, we return to the contemplation of all the dead, and we particularly remember the people that we have known, loved and lost. It is time to reflect on what it means to be part of the community of saints, stretching into eternal time in both directions.
Allhallowtide is described as a liminal time, a threshold, a time when the divisions between this world and the next become thin and beings make the journey between the two worlds. Liminal times are also the threshold over which our lives are changed. They may be rituals, such as Baptism, or natural events, like the moment when a baby draws its first breath. They can also occur as the result of upheavals over which we have no control. Liminality can also be intentional, as when one makes a pilgrimage seeking a spiritual transformation.
I was thinking about that last week when Father Poppe described Job at the end of the book as not just a guy who got all his stuff back, but as someone whose nature was changed by the experience. I wondered if the entire bet was a plot device to help us think about the effects of liminality, and the pain and disorientation which is so often a large part of the process.
One of the interesting aspect of times like this is that, while the major change is for the immediate participant, there are also liminal moments for those who are associated with him. When a baby enters the world, his life changes dramatically. The lives of people who are on the threshold of parenthood are also changed. When the baby is baptized, the community of Godparents and congregation is also changed by the addition of a new member and the chance to reflect on our own Baptismal vows. Even Job’s friends finally get their comeuppance from God himself.
The liminal experience celebrated during Allhallowtide is death. Can there be a more counterintuitive celebration? During Allhallowtide the dead become more corporeal and the living, dressed as ghosts and demons become less so. Even in our secular celebrations of Halloween we recognize that the holiday invites us to change into something else, even if only temporarily. During Allhallowtide we stand at the threshold of the living and the dead. The question for us is – how do we make sense of this time, and how does this time help us to make sense of ourselves and our place in God’s creation and eternal time.
We cannot think of “the” dead, of course, without thinking of our dead, particularly, when the death we are dealing with is recent. When someone dies we pray
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
At the liminal moment of death, the existence of the person who dies is changed in a way that is incomprehensible to us, as incomprehensible to us as the world of air breathing humans is to the unborn. Even for those of us who do not believe, the idea of being nothing, which means not being aware of being nothing is also pretty hard to wrap your mind around.
It is comforting to think that the souls of those we love dwell with God, but it does not lessen the fact that they no longer dwell with us. The severing of our relationship with the human being whom we have loved is very real and seems very final.
The impact of that finality is brought home in the immediate aftermath of death as we make arrangements for the body to be collected, call family members and friends, and begin to outline the funeral arrangements. Everything reinforces what we know, at least intellectually, that the person we love no longer exists in this world and we enter a period of mourning. It’s a period that assumes its own time and shape – different for each person in some ways, but universal in others. Experiences which seem unique turn out to be common and those who have been through the loss of someone close can find a bond with other mourners if one is sought.
It seems to me that mourning is itself a liminal existence, more than missing and remembering. We know that our beloved is dead and that we are alone. But what we know intellectually does not always inform what we know in our hearts. How else to explain the way you jump at the creak of the house because it seems so much like the tread on the stair. The brief feeling of recognition when you see a tall grey haired man at the end of the block before you realize that it’s not, cannot be, him. The recurring dream where it’s all some terrible mix up and you have to explain to Father Poppe that the funeral was a mistake. Mourning is a disorienting time, a time in which it hard to make sense of the world. It is a time, like Allhallowtide, when the dead seem not quite gone and there seems to be a dissolution of orderliness in our lives and in our minds.
Death and mourning are also a time of change. I remember, as I filled out one of the many forms that are necessary to straighten out final affairs, hovering the mouse over the checkboxes “married” and “widowed” and having to really wrestle with the idea that I had to make the click. I sat there for a while after, just repeating in my mind, “I’m a widow.” It seemed so obvious and yet so strange.
Liminal times pass, sometimes slowly, sometime quickly. There is the ritual milestone of the funeral and the small acceptance of clicking “widowed.” None of these events controls the movement of the soul though the period, but they are reminders to keep moving. God does not invite us to remain in a liminal state, but I think He does not intend us to try to rush through it. Can we think of the time of mourning as a gift or an opportunity? It’s a hard gift to accept, but the time allows us to accept that we must become someone other than who we were and to make a life with new rules, to accept that life on this earth ends and to accept that life beyond it is unknowable.
Those who have mourned this year come to Allhallowtide from a different place and in a different state from the year before. It is work to get to a place where we can see the season as one of celebration, to appreciate why it is a feast, not a fast. But the work to get there is important work, work that God calls us to do.
So I invite you to the disorientation that is Allhallowtide, a little retroactively, to celebrate the season with me in remembrance, thanksgiving, sorrow, joy and faith. Because in connecting us with death, in Allhallowtide also connects us with resurrection and the liminal space which is the linchpin of our faith – the three days culminating in Easter Sunday. The season invites us to look forward to Eastertide and to remember that we worship the God who took everything we know about death and stood it on its head and the man who said “Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted.”