By Juan L. Mercado
“WE GIVE them back to you O, Lord, who first gave them to us. Yet, as you do not lose in giving, so we have not lost them by their return.” (Prayer for the Departed).
“All Soul’s Day is so – what’s the word now? – so bifurcated,” the wife said after a Halloween dinner. “Words like ‘bifurcated’ drive editors nuts,” I replied. “Just what did you mean?”
“Half a world away, our granddaughters — one dressed as a pirate and the other as a princess – join other California kids in trick-or-treat parties,” she mused. “Here, our grandchildren bring flowers and light candles for family graves. And those plots will include ours, sooner rather than later.” Oh, that.
Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve” (All Saints Day). It marked the Celtic New Year. And in 1848, Irish immigrants brought those spooky costumes to the US where it continues today as a fun-filled kids’ feast.
Reaching out to the departed goes back thousands of years. “It is a good and wholesome thought to pray for the dead,” declares the ancient Book of Macabees. By the year 998, the Benedictine abbot Oddilo of Cluny picked November 2 for remembrance. This practice spread to other countries, including the Philippines.
The living aid the departed, the teaching went, by asceticism’s trio: prayer, sacrifice and alms. They’d help atone for past transgressions, and pave entry into the Beatific Vision.
“Lift us up, that we may see further, as one by one, You gather scattered families, from the distractions, strife and weariness of time, to the peace of eternity,” an ancient prayer goes.
“Death is only a horizon. And a horizon is the limit of our sight. We thank you for the labor and joys of these mortal years, We thank you for the deep sense of mystery that lies beyond our mortal dust”.
The desire to “see further” echoes, even in newsrooms. Here come those de-cajon stories,” an editor wearily groused. Whenever All Souls’ Day comes around, news desks are swamped with humdrum reports: traffic jams, jostling crowds to squatters living in crammed cemeteries. “Is that all there’s to this?”
No, it’s not. The familiar, however can blur realities beyond the customary: from votive candles, cemeteries turned into two-day cities, zapped by karaokes.
Still, the central – and stunning — reality remains of life beyond a handful of ashes.,
“We Filipinos use the idiom itaga mo sa bato to assert our utmost confidence,” Pastor Lino Pantoja writes. “Such were Job’s exact words: ‘Oh, that my words were engraved in rock forever.’”
They’re words of Job’s primitive theology of the Resurrection: “I know that my Redeemer lives. And in the end, He will stand forth upon the earth. And after my skin shall have been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”
These words were written 2,500 years before Easter’s empty tomb. And in 1741, George Fredric Handel had worked it into his soaring oratorio that the world never forgot: “The Messiah.”
The liturgy for All Souls spotlights this reality. Vita mutatur, non tollitur, priests murmur in the Eucharist’s preface: “For unto your faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away”. The same theme resonates wherever religious or laymen read the Liturgy of the Hours.
Our grandchildren belong to the post-Vatican II generation. They never heard what echoed in requiem services of our long-vanished youth: the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) in plain chant.
Tuba mirum spargen sonum/Per sepulchra regionum/Coget omnes ante thronum, the choir would sing. My now-hazy freshman Latin translates that into: “Trumpets blare through sepulchers, calling all to appear before judgment’s throne.”
Young and old, however share the universal aching for assurance of what lies beyond the grave.
“If only I could see him, for just a second, and know he’s all right, I’d be able to cope,” Seamus tells the priest blessing his son’s crumpled body, killed in an accident.
“I remembered Seamus’ comment” at a Mass for a student accident victim, writes Jesuit theologian Catalino Arevalo. ” The boy’s classmates chose the Transfiguration for gospel reading. “The one abut Jesus going up to the mountain and changing into dazzling white,” they suggested.
“It struck me, for the first time, that Jesus allowed his friends to see, ‘for just a second’, what was beyond. Their reaction was strange: they did not want to leave the spot. It’s ‘wonderful for us to be here.’ But Jesus reminded them they had to go down the mountain.
“What if we could get some vision, ‘for only just a second’? Or if we could, ‘for only just a second’, see people who’ve gone before us, in faith, especially those suddenly or tragically taken, in that place of light that is God’s promise?
“What if we, too, had some authentic extended experience of what ‘our eyes have not seen, nor our ears heard’ of what God prepared for those who are faithful?
“It is truly the better thing that an authentic extended experience is not given us — because we would not want to leave the spot. Better still because there is still so much of the humdrum, the frustrating, the difficult for us to endure, and if possible, with courage, to build some small beginnings of the Kingdom which Jesus wanted to make our work in this world.”
Whether in the dim catacombs, off Rome’s Appian way, or in our garishly lighted cemeteries, All Souls’ Day speaks to us in Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s poignant verse: “Death is not the extinguishing of life. It is putting out the lamp, because dawn has come.” (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)