Monday, November 3, 2014

How the church reminds us of our common destiny for eternity.

Having been blessed with the experience of living for almost two years in a place where the change of seasons is distinct, I had the opportunity to see for myself how much the Liturgical seasons are in sync with the changes in the times and seasons of the land.  It was also clear that the Latin Rite has a lot of its seasons matching the movements of the seasons of the Northern Hemisphere, something which those of us having lived all our lives either near the Equator or in the Southern Hemisphere would only have a conceptual idea of. 

This became very clear to me whenever autumn or fall arrived.  It signaled the start of shorter days and longer nights, and most noticeable would be the change of the colours of the surrounding foliage.  The leaves that were alive in hues of green would begin to change with the onset of the cooler weather, causing them to turn to breathtaking shades of amber, yellow, red and ochre.  With their very life being drawn out of them by nature’s hand, each leaf seems to be holding on with as much tenacity as it can till gravity and the wind prove to be too much and that break from the branches causes it to depart into the equally barren land below.  It is in such a life-changing environment that the Church chooses to observe in her liturgical life our shared experiences of a limited mortality when the celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day follow one after the other in the beginning of the month of November.

While the liturgical emphasis of All Saints’ Day is one of great joy and celebration, that of All Souls’ Day has a distinctively subdued, softened and muted character.  All Saints’ Day is a day of festivity and joy because we who are living and form the Church Militant give honour and pray for the continued intercessions of the Church Triumphant, made up of the millions of canonized as well as non-canonized saints who stand ‘facing God face to face’ in eternity.  Of course, these terms seem rather ecclesiastical to many, to the extent that many may have the notion that the heavenly existence is more of the result of an overactive imagination than a portrayal of heaven’s rich realities.  What we are saying in essence is that there is a great life in God that has fullness beyond what our tiny and limited minds can grasp, and there are those who have undergone the purification either in this life or in purgatory to enable one to fully be embraced by God. 

A tapestry of the Communion of Saints that can be seen in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in the city of Los Angeles by artist John Nava.  Each of these huge murals flank the walls of the Cathedral, pictorially depicting each saint's movement in life toward Christ and the Altar in the sanctuary.
Any Christian who has a notion of what his baptism calls us all toward will always hope to attain this permanent and eternal state in life.  Celebrating this Solemnity well, both liturgically and theologically reaffirms and re-instills this hope that all of us share, reminding us that no happiness and no suffering in this life lasts forever.  The attainment of heaven is something that almost requires a change, a conversion, and an enlightenment that re-orientates what drives most of us at our core.  This is a dying to the self that is part and parcel of the Christian journey, putting into practice what Jesus said about shouldering his yoke and learning from him.  These saints who go before us show us what a life lived in a forward looking hope ends in, and pave the way for us who have yet to complete our pilgrimage in this life.

Balancing this celebration is what the observance of All Souls’ Day does.  Bringing to mind the lives of those who have ended their lives here, it reminds us that the journey towards heaven requires us to still be somewhat connected with our deceased relations and friends who make up the Church Penitent.  The mystery of our shared mortality is given a liturgical reminder when we actively call to mind the many lives of those who still await a purification before they can fully receive God’s eternal embrace of love.  Not that God doesn’t want them in heaven, but that by their unblinkered and unprejudiced view of their own choices made in this life, they come to the honest conclusion that they are not yet ready for the one who is love.  Loving on our own often small terms makes us live with constricted hearts that are not yet ready to have our hearts beat fully in tandem with the heart of God.  All Souls’ Day reminds us all that we have a duty and a holy obligation to pray and offer penances for the many souls who are undergoing the searing pain of this honesty that one cannot hide from once our lives here are at their end.  It also reminds us to always have our eyes cast on what is eternal, especially when faced with the many choices that often ask us to put aside our fundamental option in life.

It is not surprising that many are not comfortable with the observance of All Souls’ Day, given that it reminds us of our own mortality.  But when it is observed with sound theology and dignified liturgy, it allows us to make that very important connection with those who have lived this life and are no longer physically with us.  It also reminds us that they are actually still alive in our prayers, in our memories, and in our hearts, and that this life and its joys are only a prelude of much greater joys to come.

Celebrating and observing these two days in the liturgical calendar is ample evidence that our worship and our faith are very organic in nature.  Our connectedness binds us beyond life’s borders gives us all great hope, simply because we are never alone in our journey toward God.

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