The Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and the people of Mexican heritage elsewhere. Congregants are encouraged to bring pictures and favorite articles of their friends and family members who have died to be put on a colorful makeshift ofrenda in the sanctuary.

Day of the Dead Homily

Even after 2000 years, vestiges of paganism still permeate Christianity and Western culture. The word “pagan” derives from the Latin “PAGANI” meaning country-dweller—that is, rural people whose religious conservatism caused them to cling to old beliefs and practices even when Christianity was well established in cities and among the aristocracy.

Rural people and those living close to the Earth—in olden times and in modern times—have always paid close attention to the annual cycle of the seasons. Ceremonies and celebrations were held on the equinoxes and solstices—and also at the halfway points between them:

February 1, May 1, July 1,

And the first of November—a few days from today. Through the first half of the Christian era paganism was overt and more or less acceptable. Christianity and paganism existed side by side in uneasy proximity long enough for Christians to take over as many pagan deities, holy places, customs, and holidays as possible.

Noting that the people wouldn’t accept Christianity unless it could be considered an extension of their paganism, Pope Gregory the Great (who served from 590 to 604 and for whom “Gregorian Chants” are so-named) directed that all pagan feast days be Christianized.

Indeed, it could be said that paganism and Christianity co-exist today, as many aspects of Christian worship, sacraments, and theology come from the pagan heritage.

Halloween, and its Mexican counterpart, “Dia de los Muertos,” is a perfect example. The pagan idea used to be that crucial joints between the seasons, and also right in the middle of each season, opened cracks in the fabric of space-time, allowing contact between the ghost world and the mortal one. So, following Gregory’s dictum, paganism’s mid-autumn celebration was

renamed “All Saint’s Day.” The ancient beliefs and practices were overlaid with a veneer of Christianity. But the bottom line—that at this time of year CRACKS in our normal-waking sense of space-time enabled communication between the living and the dead—has remained for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years.

This morning we here at East Shore Unitarian Church celebrate this ancient Christian-Pagan tradition in the manner that has evolved over the last four and a half centuries in Mexico. As we live in a country that with greater and greater Hispanic people, this makes good sense. And it has been a tradition in many of our Southwestern Unitarian Universalist congregations for many years.

For people of all faiths and in every tradition the process of grieving begins with shock or denial, and then releases a rush of feelings that can include depression, confusion, panic, or even guilt or anger. Most cultures recognize the need to vent these feelings in a ritualized setting. We don’t need protection from these feelings as much as we need a safe space and safe context in which to face them. And a supportive community with whom we can express them.

This is what the Day of the Dead is all about: facing our grief and sharing it openly; that by having the courage to grieve we grow also in our capacity to love.

In this spirit I invite each of you to again recall to your memory a loved one who has died. Perhaps you brought a picture of this person; or if not, picture them in your memory; then write their names on the butterfly shape or ask someone sitting near you to write the name for you.

And now, if you wish: bring the any pictures of mementos or names written on paper butterflies forward as a special ritual of remembering…. Amen.