All Souls Day by Jakub Schikaneder

November is a time for remembering: All Saints and All Souls, Armistice Day and Guy Fawkes Night. As darker nights draw in and the world prepares for winter, the year gone by edges closer, like a haunting, and we remember all we’ve lost over the previous twelve months, in all its loneliness and hurt.

2020 has been a hell of a year, politics and Coronavirus combining to destabilize everything. Our losses have been magnified – all those months separated from those we care about, all those days of uncertainty, all those hours in the middle of the night as we try to ward off the shadows of despair. 2020 is going to live with us for a long time.

It’s okay to grieve. There are those who are no longer with us, there are opportunities that evaporated, there are hopes that have withered as their roots dried. Why shouldn’t we mourn the goodbyes, be saddened by the postponements? If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that getting back to normal is easier said than done.

But remembrance is also strength. We remember those we loved and still love even though they’re no longer here, We remember the things they taught us, how they made us feel, the billion things that made them them. We can hold these close, draw power from a shared story. The pain is real, the loss is real, but so is the love, and the greatest of these is love.

We remember our faith, all the saints who went before us, from St. Peter carrying the Keys to the Kingdom, to a quiet old matriarch carrying a mop. They formed us and helped us and taught us, they’re part of the DNA of our faith and they’re still with us somehow, a strange communion that exists even when our church buildings are closed and our meetings have found their way onto Zoom and Youtube, the waves and the wires. Remember that the Church is bigger than we think, that it incorporates robes and suits and tonsures and cornrows and wheelchairs and all those called by God, remember that the margins don’t keep people out, they just make the Church a whole lot bigger, remember that the Spirit will fly wherever the Spirit pleases and it’s easier to follow because you’ll never trap that Dove in a cage.

We remember the betrayal and the anger and the brokenness, the things that happened but shouldn’t have happened, the cold shoulder, the knife in the back. These things are also real, and they were wrong, they were stupid, they were sin. We remember to cry out for justice, for the pain to change us, not so that we become a monster that fights monsters, but so that it spurs us forward, helps us to get back on our feet one more time, to not let the gatekeepers and the life-thieves keep us from a better future, not let them steal our greater visions.

We remember the broken, we remember the fallen, we remember those who once stood proud on the parade ground who now shiver in doorways. We remember the heartbreaking sacrifices, we remember the silence at eleven, we remember the limitations of flags. We remember those who fight and those who flee, the improvised explosives and the sunken dinghies. We remember that, while don’t all go to war, and we don’t all escape a home in ruins, we can all try to be healers, be peacemakers, can all turn our swords into ploughshares, even if those swords are words.

This is a season of memory, and it has been for centuries. We should mourn with those who mourn as the days get short and the nights get long. But in this time of memory, in the days of ice and desolation, there are seeds buried deep in the ground and every tree stripped bare has the potential for new beginnings hidden within. Because Spring will spring, as unlikely as that sometimes feels; Easter is on it’s way, and while even Jesus still carries the scars of the past in his hands, he reaches out in the dark, weeps alongside you, picks up a lantern and guides us towards the dawn.

All Souls Day

They say the dead are closer at this time of year. Maybe that’s easier to believe as the nights draw in, as the earth draws into a kind of hibernation. Here in Britain it’s a season of memories, all poppies and fireworks. Remember, remember, what we do to our enemies. Remember, remember the fallen. And while All Souls Day isn’t part of my tradition, there’s something about this time in history that’s bringing the dead closer. For me that isn’t personal mourning but corporate. It’s getting darker earlier now, and in the quiet and in the shadows it almost feels like memories are haunting us like ghosts. It’s been less than a week since a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and that can’t help but evoke the countless other times the spirit of antisemitism walked abroad. We say “Never again”, but we’re oh so good at forgetting, and forgetting turns remembrance into repetition.

Traditionally this is a time to commemorate loved ones who have passed on, but ‘All Souls’ is an encompassing name. It’s non-specific, inclusive, draws in the forgotten, the ignored, the disappeared, and when we lean into that, memories can act as an inoculation. Often consciences are haunted – new evidence keeps emerging around the lynching of Emmett Till, and only last week Matthew Shepard was laid to rest after 20 years – but too often it’s not enough. As a society we still worship death too much, and even pastors are enamoured with arms deals. Maybe restless spirits are the price we pay for that.

And yet we need those ghosts, because behind them is life, and though we remember Martin Luther King was assassinated, we can remember his life, his dream. We can be shocked by the image of Alan Kurdi lying dead in the sand, but we can also remember the photograph of a smiling little boy on a slide, and let it transform our image of migrants and caravans. We can remember the innocent and the unarmed who have fallen and honour their names through our calls for justice.

In Mexico they celebrate Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead with festivities and dancing. I like that; I’ve been maudlin here, but there’s a power in remember those we loved, they way they made us laugh, the sound of their voice, the things they taught us, the way they loved us back. Memories have power, they can drive us forward, we can dance into the future because others once danced with us, and others will dance in the future and maybe remember us. We’re part of a lineage, and our stories can give strength to the generations to come.

At the heart of Christian ritual is an act of remembrance, the body and the blood and the empty tomb. And so we’re not saved by the dead, nor need we be haunted, but memory can join us together, can remind us of who we are, who we should be. May our memories be sanctified, and may the ghosts that hold us back move into the light.

All Saints Day

Think of those scenes of the saints in Revelation, those Renaissance imaginings of Heaven. Hold the pictures in your mind, and try to augment them with a mental soundtrack. What does it sound like? Odd question, maybe, but I’m always asking odd questions. It’s my spiritual gift.

My soundtrack? Sorry, my internal playlist fails me too often; I imagine these images accompanied by a deafening Hallelujah chorus or joyous gospel, which is fine as far as it goes, but where’s the rock, where’s the hip-hop, where’s Johnny Cash? Some may sing with the voice of an angel, but we never imagine that to sound like a busker on the Underground, no matter the purity of their worship.

That paucity of musical imagination shouldn’t limit my notions of the Church; after all, the communion of saints is bigger and messier and more diverse than we often imagine. Purple-clad archbishops, wild-eyed prophets riding the subway, coffee morning matriarchs, homeless prayers in doorways, refugee pilgrims, faces lit by candles or neon, criminalised worship in the dark. It’s All Saints Day in a divided world, and we need that vision of a Church that’s bigger than our own congregations, need that vision if we’re to offer any counter to the temptations of demagogues, if we’re to see the Kingdom of God as anything other than an homogenous empire huddled in fear behind walls and rage.

The bonds of faith cross borders and barriers, no matter how much we try to break them; sometimes we try so hard to break them that we get blood on our hands, and those are times to mourn and repent.  We rightly think of the places in which brothers and sisters are experiencing violence and torture, but we also need to reckon with the trauma inflicted by those who walk corridors of power with their Bibles covered in blood. Having empathy with the former rather than faith in the latter may stop some of us identifying with the crucifiers rather than the crucified. Yesterday I subtitled a Halloween post ‘Heroes and Monsters’. Let’s not pretend that I couldn’t have done the same today.

And so today is a day to think of those saints – both official and ordinary – who’ve gone before, but also those who are present with us today, those still to come. Those speaking from the podium and those pushed to the margins because of their sexuality, their disability, their gender, their race. The Table around which we gather is always bigger than we think, and that simple fact deserves nothing but hallelujahs.

The image at the top of the post from John Nava’s series of tapestries in LA’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. It stands out to me because the saints wear tonsures and headscarves and cornrows. Something as simple as hairstyles can help us to see ourselves as one, not as encouragement to force everyone to be the same, but to catch the beauty and worship and the Imago Dei in variety, in fusion, in remix, the light of God’s Image refracted through His Church, an image that can transform fading photos on dusty mission noticeboards into people who we can learn from, stand by, become our family, and stand next to as we sing.

When The Night Has Come: A Post For Halloween

Christian-Cross-Carved-PumpkinWinter is coming, so they say; the clocks have gone back, the nights draw closer, we enter into Allhallowtide, a liminal season where past and present and future and worlds both visible and hidden start to coalesce.

It’s at this time of year, the ancient whispers go, that the veil between worlds thins. This isn’t a curtain I tend to poke behind, but the winter seems so dark this year; the spectre of old wars and the clatter of lying keyboards haunt the landscape as powerful men rape and pillage their way through their self-declared empires. Never mind Halloween, the veil has been thinning apocalyptically for a while now. I’m not sure I like it.

But maybe that’s something to think about this Halloween. Maybe we need to catch a glimpse of another world – not a world of wraiths and abandoned graveyards, a world lit only by flickering pumpkin-light, but a better world, somewhere more peaceful, somewhere more just, somewhere more real. Now is not the time to disguise ourselves as monsters so the monsters cannot break us, now is the time to stare through the tear in the curtain and catch a glimpse of hope instead.

Because as the world slips into the dark, hope’s the only thing that will keep us going, the only trustworthy will o’ the wisp willing to light our way. Stick to that path, lest we put too much trust in ghosts.

This is the season of all the saints and all our souls, and while we decorate our homes and schools and supermarkets with the dead and the undead, really this is a season that reminds us of a resurrection to come; at least that’s how I’m looking at it. Things may be in retreat at the moment, the hopes and fears of all the years gathering on the streets. That’s what winter’s all about, after all.

Yet spring will emerge one day, just as it always does. And while now we see through a veil, thinly, then we will see in full. That’s what keeps us going; that’s what brings us through the dark.

Remembrance Day

Stalag_XIIA_POW_campMy great uncle was captured at Dunkirk. He never talked about it much, but it’s possible to put the story together from the history books; taken to the Stalag XX-A camp in Poland then, when the Red Army approached, forced to take part in the Long March to Germany, enduring subzero conditions. Hundreds didn’t make survive the journey. No wonder Albert never wanted to talk about it.

Remembrance Day brings into focus our ambiguous relationship with war. “Never forget” is all very well, but it needs to mean something; we remember the fallen,, but what about the survivors? We remember the poppy fields of WWI but what about the squaddie who lost his legs to an IED last year? We say “Never again”, but we just love the arms industry’s £7 billion contribution to the country’s economy every year. We argue about red poppies, white poppies, no poppies, but still the bombs fall. Sometimes they don’t hit the enemy.

Our churches hold Remembrance Sunday services every year and it’s important we do so, just as it’s important that we pause for two minutes at 11am on the 11th November, to carve out a sacred space in the world to remember what it means for our nations to be involved in war after war. There’s a problem, however, when this becomes a public act of piety with no depth, an act of remembrance that lasts just long enough to lay a wreath.

Today is about more than history; remembrance, if it’s to mean anything, has to be a living and active thing – it has to be about the present as well. We have to remember those fighting in distant lands, and those back home but struggling to readjust to civilian life; those killed in action and those fleeing their homes with nowhere to go; the past, the present and yes, we remember the future. Remembrance should help us do something about the future, give us the long term perspective we need to deal with the breaking waves of history. “What should we do about IS?” is a huge question, but at least part of the answer lies forty years ago; remembrance should be prompting us to think about how to end the wars that could haunt our children’s generation, to consider how we treat our neighbour and the sort of politics we publicly rubber-stamp.

The church holds services of remembrance and houses war memorials and accompanies the marches of dwindling survivors. In a world where war has scarred our social psyche, both through global combat and the sudden, vicious targeting of civilians that seems to mark modern conflicts, we have to decide where we stand, what remembrance actually means for us. What would Jesus do to pick up the pieces of world wars and all the present and future wars we face?

Two minutes isn’t long enough to come up with an answer, two minutes isn’t long enough to process the ambiguity of following the Prince of Peace in a world full of drones and nuclear missiles. But we have to come up with an answer – compassion and grace demand it. And they’re the difference between pseudo-sacred rituals and true, heartfelt remembrance.