Remembering Loved Ones Gone Before Us

This week we begin the new month of November. Traditionally this is the time of year, in the Christian liturgical calendar, when we remember the souls of the faithful departed. The season, begins with the Feast of All Saints, Women and Men over countless generations who inspired, engaged, and personified the Christian values, of faith, hope and love. This great feast, is followed by All Souls day. A day, when we remember our loved ones, who have gone before us. Many people on this special day, also visit their family plots, sacred places, where the mortal remains of loved ones lie buried. Death is a very difficult reality and yet is very part of all our human experiences.

Death points us to the ultimate mystery in relation to our meaning and purpose in life and to our final journey, of which Saint Paul consoles in his remark “Our true home is in Heaven”. It is always a deep privilege to celebrate with family and friends the passing of their loved one from this life. Funerals are those moments, when gathering together, we ritualise the life of someone, we loved and whose memory we will cherish forever. We should take great pride in how we celebrate funerals in our local parishes. There is a tremendous sense of community solidarity and support which offers rich sympathy to those carrying the burden of loss and grief.

Halloween did not come from Hollywood but rather its origins are strongly connected to ancient Celtic roots. In Celtic Ireland, about two millennia ago, Samhain was the point between the lighter (summer) and darker halves (winter) of the year. At Samhain, the gap between this and the other world was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. People’s ancestors were honoured and invited home, while harmful spirits were warded off. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as spirits to avoid harm. Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into a communal blaze, household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire. Food was prepared for the living and the dead and was ritually shared with the less well-off.

Christianity incorporated honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on 1st November, followed by All Souls on the following day. The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits has survived as Halloween customs. The Irish emigrated to America in great numbers during the 19th century, especially around the time of famine in Ireland during the 1840s. The Irish carried their Halloween traditions to America, where it is now one of the major holidays of the year. November is the time of the year when we remember the souls of loved ones who have gone before us. November is a difficult time of year. The beginning of winter brings long nights and cooler days. This can be a time of loneliness and anxiety, especially for those who live alone. In our Celtic tradition, we have a great sense of our own mortality and vulnerability during this month. The Celtic festival of Samhain was a time to remember all who had gone before. Death is difficult and painful. It strips us of the familiar and often leaves us naked and vulnerable with our bereavement and painful losses, which we all have experienced when a loved one dies. The death of a loved one often leaves many unanswered questions as we attempt to carry on without a husband or wife, sibling or friend.

Perhaps the two most powerful lines in the entire Gospel describe the human emotion felt by Jesus when his friend Lazarus died: “Jesus wept.” Jesus knew the pain and hurt that comes when a loved one dies. And for God to fully embrace the human condition, he also had to embrace death itself through his son. The humiliating and brutal manner of Christ’s death united God with all types of suffering and persecution. The final words that came from our dying God was a prayer of welcome and wonderful invitation: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” We know from our experience that the leaves will blossom again, that spring will come. Christ’s death was the ultimate demonstration of love by his father. As he was awoken to new life and resurrection, so, too, are all of us who believe in him. As we remember our loved ones who have died and pray for them, we do so with great hope in our hearts.

May all our loved ones enjoy the eternal promise of life and peace in the happiness and joy of God’s presence. Jesus tells us: “I am going ahead of you to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you, too, shall be.” And despite the pain that comes when a loved one dies, in faith we are encouraged to hope in the reality that God’s love is even brighter than death itself. Pádraig Pearse once told a beautiful story to demonstrate our Christian hope regarding death. In the month of September, the little boy asked his mother where do all the swallows go? She replied: “To the land where it is always summer.”

The dead are not distant or absent. They are alongside us. When we lose someone to death, we lose their physical image and presence, they slip out of visible form into invisible presence. This alteration of form is the reason we cannot see the dead. But because we cannot see them does not mean that they are not there. Transfigured into eternal form, the dead cannot reverse the journey and even for one second re-enter their old form to linger with us a while. Though they cannot reappear, they continue to be near us and part of the healing of grief is the refinement of our hearts whereby we come to sense their loving nearness. When we ourselves enter the eternal world and come to see our lives on earth in full view, we may be surprised at the immense assistance and support with which our departed loved ones have accompanied every moment of our lives. In their new, transfigured presence their compassion, understanding and love take on a divine depth, enabling them to become secret angels guiding and sheltering the unfolding of our destiny.

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