Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Día de Los Muertos

The Martyrology announces today's liturgical feast thus: "Today we keep the commemoration of all the deceased faithful..." It's becoming more and more a practice in our country to observe a día de los muertos = Day of the Dead, undoubtedly because of the Mexican cultural influence as well as of the Church's observance of a day remembering those who've gone before us in death. It's now customary in many places for people to have altars of various sizes with mementoes reminding lthem of their dear departed ones. Mine, shown at the left, is a very simple collection of pictures of close family and a few special friends, along with a stylistic little skull which I bought last year at Oliver's Market, across the way from where I live here in Cotati.

Following on the heels of All Saints Day, All Souls Day only continues our remembrance and prayer for those irreplaceable people in our lives who've gone before. I find myself more and more full of gratitude for their legacy: the lessons they taught me, the spiritual grounding they provided, the modelling of love and compassion which they gave.

The liturgical observance of a day commemorating the faithful who have departed is due to the meek and holy Abbot Odilo of Cluny, who died in 1048. He instituted the practice of the Office of the Dead after Vespers on November 1 in 998 in all monasteries connected to the Abbey of Cluny. Eventually the practice of honoring All Souls was widely imitated and spread to the worldwide Church, reaching its culmination under Pope Pius X. In the "old days" we priests were permitted to celebrate the Eucharist three times on this day: perhaps a bit of "overkill", but the right intention was there. 

Fr. Pius Parsch (1884-1954), great liturgician and a leader in the Liturgical Movement, describes the Office of the Dead as "a prayer service filled with deep compassion, a spirit of willingness to aid the needy, true sympathy, but restrained by Christ-like love..." He sees the Eucharistic liturgy for All Souls as reflecting two distinct strata: 1) the ancient stratum dating back to Christian antiquity which emphasises joy in spirit and speaks the hopeful message of resurrection; 2) the sin-conscious stratum of the Middle Ages, neither joyful nor triumphant in tone, but filled with concern over the suffering souls. Death and judgment are seen in dark and fear-filled visions, most vividly in the famous depiction of the Final Judgment as Dies irae = day of wrath, immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Any of us who've had the privilege to view  that painting appreciate a bit of what the words of the Dies irae are trying to express.

Every time I chant, or even just recite, the Preface of the Dead, one of my most favorite prayers in all the liturgy, I experience the immense hope which today's liturgical feast is meant to instill in us. The Preface is a recent composition, modeled on the ancient Mozarabic liturgy. As I inch closer to the reality of my own death, it gives me tremendous confidence and peace:

"In Christ the hope-star of a blessed resurrection
has shone upon us.
Though the certainty of dying may sadden us,
the assurance of future immortality gladdens us.
For to those who have faith in You, Lord, 
life does not end -- it merely changes!
And when our earthly dwelling falls into ruins,
we find an eternal home in heaven."

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