November is a time for remembering, we heard today in church. For remembering the saints, remembering the origins of Protestantism, for remembering soldiers who lost their lives in our country's wars, for remembering transgendered men and women who have been murdered, and for remembering the important people in our lives who are no longer with us.
Why so much reflection in November; so much commemoration as the calendar year nears its end? Well, it is only fitting that we honour our war dead on the anniversary of the armistice that concluded the tragically misnomered 'war to end all wars'. Reformation Day is every October 31st, the day Luther defied the Church of Rome by nailing his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. Transgender Remembrance Day is November 20th, 8 days prior to the date Rita Hester was murdered on in 1998.
All Saints Day though, that one (and All Souls Day which immediately follows it) isn't an anniversary. There is a lot of supposition that the early Christian church placed those days at that spot in the calendar in order to coincide with the Celtic observance of Samhain. It makes sense, especially when you consider that the same rationale is likely the reason for our observing the birth of Christ in December, during Yuletide, instead of early summer.
But maybe there is a deeper reason.
Many cultures turn their thoughts to the dead at this time of year. Consider Mexico's Dia de Los Muertos, or Brazil's Dia de Finados. In Germany, Frederick William III dictated that the last Sunday before Advent should be directed to veneration of the dead, creating Totensonntag. Similar festivals occur all over the world, generally after the harvest, and in the case of Samhain, midway between the autumnal Equinox and winter solstice.
The Celts felt this time of year was a 'thin time', a period in which the borders between the world we know and what might come afterwards became porous, permeable. This thinness can permit visitation by the spirits of the departed, or at least the perception of them by those still living, and this sentiment echoes across the globe. Perhaps this border blurring is due to some alignment we are as yet unaware of, or perhaps, as some feel, the lack of crops upon the earth make it easier for the spirits of those interred below it to roam.
We don't talk a lot about the afterlife in my denomination, which I am grateful for, but today, in the spirit of remembrance, and in observance of what may be a thin time, we were asked to think of someone of importance in our lives, whether recently departed or long since gone. We were asked to write their name on a paper leaf, and, after a time of reflection, hang that leaf upon the branches of a 'tree of life' in the sanctuary.
My thoughts and heart went immediately to my father, who passed away two and a a half years ago. As I wrote his name on a leaf-shaped piece of yellow construction paper, I felt my eyes welling up, and I got a little frustrated with myself, to be quite honest. For heaven's sake, I thought, what are you, Hamlet? How long is the thought of your Dad's death going to wet your face? But this didn't last long.
I brought my leaf forward, hung it, and returned to my seat. I removed my glasses and brushed the tears away from the corner of my eyes with the heel of my hand, in the manner of a man grinding weariness out of his eyes, but I doubt I fooled anyone. One person looked at me, smiled sadly and nodded knowingly; another silently squeezed my shoulder as they walked past. I saw many others wiping away tears with their hands, sleeves, handkerchiefs, and I felt something.
I wish I could tell you it was the spirit of my father, because there are days I dearly wish to, but if he was there with me this morning, I was unable to discern his presence. What I was able to perceive was something I know to be of great importance to him: community.
United in loss, permeated by grief, we reach out to comfort and to reassure, gaining solace of our own, and quieting even those harsh inner voices that tell us it is well past time we 'moved on'. There is a power there, unmistakably, but whether it comes from within or without I cannot say.
Despite the discomfort it can sometimes bring me, I am not looking forward to the day when recalling my father's passing doesn't leave me affected in some way, whether the time or space is thin or not. In the end, I was grateful for the opportunity to remember him in this way today.