All Souls Day
HOMILY FOR ALL SOULS AND THE BLESSING OF THE GARDEN OF THE COSMIC CHRIST, NOVEMBER 15, 2020
One of the marks that are commonly used to call a prehistoric population “human”, it the burial of the dead. Those who bury their dead are seen as distinct enough from their primate forebears to be called human, the others remain monkeys, so to speak. Humanity is defined by the awareness of death and by the veneration of the ancestors, as well as by the fear of death and all sort of ideas about the fate of the dead. Our forebears have long examined these matters, as it is evident even just at a glance over the words used in this service: eternal mercy but also ultimate judgment; assurance of a life of peace in another soul state, without the body, but also the promise of a general resurrection of all bodies; death as an horrendous abyss from whose depths we cry to God, and death as a portal to the blessed life with all the saints in heaven. Plenty of contradictions, if you want, which are due to the historical accumulation of several strata of beliefs, but also to the very fact that we just don't know. Our faith does not give us a special access to any knowledge about the state of people after the event of their death. Bleak scientific accounts of the event of death also do not. We are left with ancestral convictions, literary images, emotional certainties or doubts, longings, memories, hopes, fears, and at times also with the wisdom that comes from accepting death as a necessary part of the construction itself of our identity as persons.
We become wiser, I think, when we understand that around death a lot of meaning is concentrated. When we simply fear death, such meaning cannot emerge. When we reflect on death, as the major religious traditions of the world teach us to do, we might learn how to live. The author of an early Christian letter says that Jesus came to free from the fear of death those who were enslaved by such fear. Sounds a bit Buddhist, but it is in our New Testament. Pushing death away, not ever thinking about it, is the perfect recipe for a pretty fearful and unsatisfying life, as it is largely witnessed by our culture of over-achievers and winners. “Man, this very night your life will be asked of you, and what you have accumulated, who will profit from it?” asks Jesus in a parable. Jesus was not a winner. I keep insisting on this, because I believe is a central element of our religion which has been cleaned up way too much. Jesus failed in his project and was killed on a cross. From what we can glean from our sources, he was a lover of life, a great raconteur, and even a wine conoisseur, but he did not run away when his time was ripe. At a pretty young age. One does not get the impression that dying was easy for him, or that he looked to be killed, but he did not reject his fate when it became clear to him. What makes him different then than, say, Socrates, another highly symbolic figure of the acceptance of death?
The central element of any Eucharist that we celebrate is the memorial of the death and the resurrection of Jesus. We could say, therefore, than Socrates and Buddha did not resurrect, but Jesus did. But this is a poor statement. We need to understand what is the resurrection of which we talk about. Was it a way of winning, after all, and getting revenge on those who killed him? It does not seem that way. Was it the resuscitation of an individual body? The resurrection makes sense only when projected onto a cosmic background. The event of the resurrection, with the peace that the risen Christ breathes over the apostles, with the forgiveness of all sins, is the beginning of a new community. People who become conscious of being themselves the body of the risen Christ. Not individually, but collectively. The eternal wisdom of God, which lives in all creatures but took flesh fully in one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, cannot die with him and disappear. It is poured over, as Holy Spirit, on those who were joined to Jesus during his life but become the members of Christ after his death. This is our dogma, that is, our doctrine. It is pure mysticism, of course, nothing that can be proven except by personal experience.
We are the heirs of such mystical understanding of life and death. We can perceive the unity among us, and with our beloved who have departed, and with our ancestral sisters and brothers in the faith, and with all of nature, as something that goes beyond death, and makes of death not the end of everything, but a portal to something greater and divine. This our wisdom is not knowledge. We know nothing of what happens in the afterlife. This wisdom, however, is a way of life that has the power of making us more deeply human than anything else I know. It is the awareness of the communion of saints in all ages and cultures. It is the awareness of the presence of the living God as a spring in our midst. A God who does not take people's lives, but connects our lives together, whether we are alive or dead.
Today we are praying for our dead, which is in essence nothing else than proclaiming our love for them and our desire for them to reach the completeness of their life process. We are also planting olive trees in their names, as a way to proclaim the continuity between their lives and ours. This garden will be dedicated today to the Cosmic Christ, that is, to the wisdom of God present in every culture and every religion and every person and every creature, and which we believe has been especially incarnate in Jesus. Think of the Cosmic Christ as the body of the risen Christ that extends to the whole universe, beyond us, the Church, which we are already accustomed to call “the body of Christ”. Think of the Cosmic Christ as the connector, the eternal wisdom, that “bit of God” present in every creature which makes each connect with all the others. At the very center of this new garden there will be a small round space, from which several paths will depart. It is a representation of the host with rays of light emanating from it, a symbol that we have chosen as very much in tune with the Anglo-catholic tradition of this parish. But it is not an Anglo-catholic tradition that looks just to the past. On the contrary, it is a daring launching into a future that welcomes many different kinds of people at the banquet of the kingdom. I dream of the day when this garden will become a “destination” for people in the neighborhood and beyond, and we will sit under these trees to talk about life and death with many new friends.
My brothers and sisters, we are full of emotions when we connect with our thinking and memories to our beloved who have died. This is a good thing, because it makes our hearts grow deep and teaches us, beyond all pain, to live a life of gratitude, a perennial Eucharist. Amen.