The Departed Do Live On – a service by Rev. David M Bryce and Eloise McGaw, Worship Assistant
Sermon portion – Rev. David M Bryce
About two years ago I saw my father driving a car in Watertown. I had that sudden lift of the heart we feel when we see someone we love, and I said to myself, “Oh, there’s Dad”.
Then came the realization that this could not be true, and the remembrance that he had died over a decade before, and that brought on the small shadow of disappointment and sadness that always accompanies that remembrance; not as sharp or deep as the original grief, but there all the same.
In our part of the world, in this season of autumn, as the days have longer periods of darkness; as the vegetables in the fields wither, and as the trees and other plant life drop their leaves and seem stark and deathly in the moonlight, it is natural to think of death and, by extension, of the dead.
Our celebration of Halloween has evolved out of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, probably with an admixture of elements from an ancient Teutonic autumn festival. That evolution included efforts by the Christian Church to “tame” the ongoing festival, to Christianize it by refocusing it on the martyrs of the church with All Saints Day and later with All Souls Day—a day for remembering departed family members who had been Christian. Neither of these efforts worked and Halloween continues to contain some pagan elements.
Dias de Los Muertos, an ancient Aztec festival which is growing in popularity in the United States, takes place at the same time as Halloween today, but it originally took place in August and in an effort to Christianize it was moved by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico to coincide with All Saints and All Souls days.
At Dias de Los Muertos it is a common practice to bring food to the graves of the dead. All around the world there are festivals of the dead and providing food and other gifts is a common practice, whether this is done by bringing those gifts to the person’s grave or by burning objects, whether real or paper, and sending them to the other world.
For many of us Halloween has become a non-religious time of fun and masquerading. And it has become a time of gorging on candy. But it has become detached from its original meanings.
In the ancient Celtic festival it was believed that the Veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. The thinking about this varied. For some it meant that this was the time when the spirits of those who had died during the year would rise from the grave and would cross over into the other side. For others it meant that the dead could come back through from the other world. In either case, they would visit their old homes.
To prepare for those visits, people would ready their homes as we would for visitors: they would build a fire; set the person’s usual place at the table, along with their favorite meal; would clean the sheets of their bed; and otherwise make all things pleasant for the visitation.
The idea that the dead return can have many attendant emotions. There is sometimes a sense of fear; after all, these people have been to the other world, a world most of us wish to avoid for as long as possible, and since they come from there, they carry with them the sense of dread that we sometimes have about that world.
And truth be told, there are times when someone who has passed away is not someone we would wish to have return. There are cases where those have crossed over have left behind a memory of only pain and sorrow.
An abusive parent, an addicted sibling, these are people we might not wish to see again. And these people, through these memories of pain and sorrow, may be said, in their own way, to haunt us.
And in some cases, our feelings are quite jumbled. Perhaps our parents were wonderful at one time, but their relationship with us descended into abuse; perhaps we remember our siblings as happy, innocent children who only later found their lives taken over by addiction. And so it may well be that we wish to have no connection with part of them, but wish with all of our hearts that we could reconnect with another part of their personality.
How can people actually believe that the dead come back? After all, I explain my vision of my father as the result of seeing someone with some vague similarity in looks combined with the depth of my own heart’s longing.
And yet people have reported such visits throughout time.
I had a cousin, Kenny, who died in 1969. He was just in his twenties. His father, my uncle Bob, reported to my father that for some time afterward his death Kenny would come to visit him. Kenny would sit on the couch and he and my uncle would talk, the two of them sitting there on the couch, for long periods of time.
Did this actually happen? You will bring your own beliefs and explanations to this. Some of you will believe that Kenny actually came and visited. I tend towards the rational and psychological explanations of such things, that my uncle missed and needed his son so much that his own mind created the presence.
But whether the departed live on in heaven, or are resting and waiting for resurrection day, or actually visit us, or exist only in our minds, they are still with us. In all of life we are still connected to the dead though they are gone.
There may be times when we surprise ourselves as the words of someone now gone come out of our mouths.
They return at times to memory, to guidance within.
At times we hear their voices reminding us to act in some way, or to be some kind of person than that which we are about to be.
We can ask for their guidance, ask what they would have done in a particular circumstance, and can sometimes know what their response would have been.
But they also have left behind things we may not even be aware of, things we overlook. Ways of seeing the world, teachings about people or life or how we should act, all of these may have been ingrained in us by them and they live on through such things.
Perhaps it is an openness to life, or an enjoyment of certain foods or gatherings, or an appreciation of music.
Maybe it is in the way in which we listen to others, or maybe it is in how we respond to what we have heard.
Maybe it is in the compassion that we feel towards others, or in the acts of service which follow upon that compassion.
The dead do live in our hearts, and they speak to us whenever we listen for them. May we be joyfully grateful for their ongoing presence in our lives.
Reflection portion – Eloise McGaw, Worship Assistant.
The dead – the old souls of the departed – do live in our hearts, and they speak to us whenever we listen for them
Let’s take a moment to pause, think about, and listen to the good “old souls” in our lives.
Who would that good old soul be for you? When I say “good old soul”, I am referring to those departed people in my life whom I have loved deeply and whom I often wish I could talk with again. They are the people who nourished my spirit and my mind. They are the people I wish I could reach out to and squeeze their hand and talk to once again.
As you set your table tonight….add an empty chair.
Ask yourself who from the spirit world of the departed you want to come and sit in that chair. Perhaps a grandparent, great aunt, first grade teacher, close friend, or an ancestor whom you have never met but who is connected to you through stories about them, through pictures on your wall. Perhaps someone from the past who was not a part of your life, but someone you admired deeply and always wondered what they were really like. Perhaps someone whom you long to be able to introduce to the children in your life.
Imagine that person sitting there with you? What would you want to talk about? What would you want to ask them that you never dared to when they were still living? ? What would you like to tell them about your life? What advice would you seek? What stories you would like to hear? What would you like them to tell your children? Think about how you would introduce these good old souls to the others at the table who did not yet know them. Share tonight stories about that good old soul.
In this very special season of celebration of the spirits of the past, I invite you to bring these good old souls to your table conversation and share your memories of them. I believe that in the remembering and the sharing, we keep these old souls alive in our hearts and in our own souls.
So as you set your table tonight, add an empty chair and invite a good old soul to join your conversation.