El Dia de los Muertos and the Catholic Take on Death

Dia de los Muertos

So here in America when October 31st rolls around, we all get excited for Halloween. We think of ghosts, zombies, witches, and candy. I’m not quite sure what we are actually celebrating in America anymore, to come to think of it.. Maybe that we like playing dress up and eating candy? But Halloween has a pretty interesting history. The word “Halloween” comes from “hallowed evening” or “holy evening,” because it takes place on the evening before November 1st, which is to Christians All Saints Day. November 2nd is All Souls Day.

Dia de los Muertos is such a cool tradition.. in Latin cultures it’s less about fearing death but more about embracing death as the next part of life. In this tradition, it is said that the souls of children come back the 1st, and then the souls of adults come back on the next day. Families put out offerings for their loved ones who have died to welcome them home. This tradition is kind of a combination of both the indigenous traditions of the native peoples and the tradition of the Spanish Catholics, and I see a lot of beauty in it: especially in revealing how we should be honoring and praying for the dead, and that death is not something to be feared.

But I can only talk about Dia de los Muertos so much. I’m white. I learned about that stuff from Spanish class. What I can talk about is the Catholic take on death. I think in our culture, death is pushed to the back of our minds, we try to forget about it. But it happens, doesn’t it? Death is actually the reason why I’m giving this talk.. Perla’s aunt, her Godmother, passed away last week. Perla is back in Mexico grieving with her family right now.

But here’s a fun question: do you know anyone that didn’t die?

Jesus? Nope.

Jesus died, but then He Resurrected, didn’t He! That’s an important point.

Let’s start at the beginning. Were Adam and Eve created to die? No! Adam and Eve were created to live forever in paradise with God.. the Garden of Eden. They didn’t have to work, had no pain, walked around and spoke with God in the garden, etc. They had the life! Man was not created to experience suffering, pain, and death. As it says in the Book of Wisdom (2:23), “God formed man to be imperishable.” As a missionary, I go around asking people about deep stuff like this all the time. Basically everyone universally believes that there is some sort of afterlife, some sort of meaning behind everything that we struggle through in this life, and there is truth in that! All people, no matter our faith, still know deep down that we were meant for eternal life. ..But then something big happened that changed the course of history. Adam and Eve sinned: they disobeyed God. God warned them beforehand, of course. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge wasn’t just a rule for the heck of it- God told them that they shouldn’t eat it because they would die. Genesis 2:17, “From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.” It seems explanatory enough for me. But they went ahead and ate from it anyways.

We messed up, didn’t we? God warned us, then we messed it up. That sin affected everything about the human condition, from death to the need for clothing. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans he says, “The wages of sin is death.” Our relationship with God was fractured forever- you can think of us and God being on the opposite sides of the Grand Canyon. We need God’s forgiveness to repair this relationship. You know, if I do something wrong to Ania, I can’t forgive myself. No, I need Ania’s forgiveness for our relationship to be ok again. It’s the same way with our sin and God: we need God’s forgiveness.. we can’t just go on with our lives pretending that everything is alright when it isn’t.

Let’s see how God comes to forgive us. Jumping forward through a couple thousand years of Jewish history, we land in Bethleham around year 0. In a little stable there’s a baby boy in a manger: an animal’s feeding trough. This boy is God incarnate. Emmanual: meaning God with us. Jesus: meaning God saves.

Jesus did amazing things during His public ministry: water to wine, healings, multiplication of food, walking on water, and even raising other people from the dead. But the most ridiculous thing that happens to Jesus might be that HE dies. Jesus died in one of most horrific ways imaginable: He was scourged at the pillar until his entire body was bleeding, spit on and forced to wear a thorny cross that was hardly a fashion statement, forced to carry his cross, and then finally He was nailed to the cross and left there to suffocate.. your arms get too tired to pull yourself up to get each breath. Of course on top of this He was bleeding all over the place and after He died, His heart was pierced with a spear to make sure that He was dead. Here’s a quick side note: I’ve played Jesus in a stations of the cross event before, carrying a smaller life-sized cross for a half hour or so before on a flat surface.. it’s ridiculously difficult to the point where I was looking forward to those 3 falls and not worried at all whether the cross fell on me or not. I have two points in sharing this: 1. Jesus didn’t have the option of “faking” His death so that He could be “resurrected” 2. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to do any of that. He could have snapped His fingers and we would be forgiven. No, God doesn’t just have a little mercy on us, a little liking for us. No, God has a Fatherly love for us where He is willing to go through whatever it takes to get us back. Think Liam Neeson talking about his daughter in Taken. “I would sacrifice anything for her.” God will leave the other 99 sheep just to go and find that lost one. Just like a good shepherd, He will even sacrifice His life to save the sheep. That’s God’s love for us. This isn’t just a “sad” love story though, this is an amazing story with a powerful ending! Jesus rose from the dead! WHAT! God died, and then He was resurrected. This is huge on the Catholic take on death and the afterlife, and now I’d like to think that I’ve set the stage enough for some Catholic theology.

As a Catholic I believe that just as Jesus died and rose, if we follow Jesus in dying to ourselves and becoming a new creation in God in our baptism, joining the Church, we can also rise with Jesus on the last day. See, Jesus didn’t just DIE for us, but He also ROSE for us, so that we can also rise and be with Him forever in paradise. In John (11:25), Jesus says “I am the Resurrection and the life.” We come into communion with Jesus every time that we go to mass, where we get to receive Jesus Christ Himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist. St. Irenaeus said of the Eucharist, “Just as bread comes from the earth, after God’s blessing has been invoked upon it, is no longer ordinary bread, but Eucharist, formed of two things, the one earthly and the other heavenly: so too our bodies, which partake of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.” Being nourished by Jesus in the Eucharist, we become the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ, we can be united with Jesus for eternity. We will be united with God forever, in ecstasy forever. Most people think of heaven when they think of the afterlife, but we have to remember that our destiny is resurrection. Everyone will be resurrected, the faithful to eternal bliss in new heavens, new earth, and the cruel to eternal despair.

See, what’s new about Christianity is that death isn’t the enemy anymore. Death has been defeated, as long as we’re clothed in Jesus in the Church, with the sacraments. Loving God is our purpose and meaning, and death should not scare us anymore. Our earthly lives will testify to how we love. Jesus said, “No greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The martyrs are great witnesses to this beautiful truth. A great example of this is St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and disciple of the apostle St. John. St. Ignatius was captured for his Christian faith in the 1st century and taken to Rome, where he was martyred in the Roman Coliseum, probably eaten by lions. He wrote this while he was on his way to martyrdom, “It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. Him it is I seek- who died for us. Him it is I desire- who rose for us. Let me receive pure light; when I shall have arrived there, then shall I be a man.”

I suppose it is worth a moment to talk about hell and purgatory. Of course we believe that there are two destinations: heaven and hell. Don’t think of them as physical places, but rather states of relationship with God. God is always seeking us, but are we seeking Him in return? God gave us free will, if we truly don’t want Him then He is going to give us what we want. Unfortunately for the souls in hell, life separated from God sucks pretty bad. Nobody is predestined to heaven or hell, it takes a willful turning away from God, or mortal sin, and persistence in it in order to be in danger of hell. But for those who are on their way to heaven but haven’t quite been purified of all their sins, there is a place of final purification called purgatory before heaven.

Heaven: being intimately with God forever, is our goal. There we will see God face to face. Often this is compared to a wedding feast. You’ve probably heard of the apocalypse before, right? And when you hear about the apocalypse, what do you think of? Monsters? Darkness? Chaos? Earthquakes? Well, actually, apocalypse means “unveiling,” like the unveiling of a bride at a wedding. The apocalypse is the unveiling of the bride of Christ: the Church, and then the wedding feast and eternal bliss they share forever. It’s the perfect love story, eh? St. Cyprian commented, “How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God’s friends.” At the last day, the dead will be resurrected, Jesus will return again and will have the last judgment, where He will separate “the sheep from the goats,” “placing the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left… And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31,32,46) In this new heaven and new earth, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness, where the righteous will reign forever with Christ. In this heavenly Jerusalem, God will have His dwelling with us, and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev 21:4.

I’m not just talking theory here. Just this March and April, two of my friends from college died within a few weeks of each other. Phil then Dan. Phil died in an accident. He was handicapped for nearly all his life and constantly witnessed to me what it is to be a humble servant of God. Though he could barely even move his hands and had to sit in his power chair chair all the time, he never complained about anything. When the weather was cold out and he couldn’t put on his own hat and gloves, I’d still see him driving along to class in the harsh Illinois winters. He would always say please and thank you when he needed help in the cafeteria, or with anything else. Phil is in heaven, there are no ifs ands or buts about it.

Dan is a different and more radical story. Dan was a year younger than me, he was in my bible study for a couple of years and we were good friends. I never noticed but in hindsight it’s so clear: Dan had issues with depression. He had a particularly difficult time this past school year, and would go home often. After a particularly difficult time, he needed anti-depressants. But getting off of anti-depressants transforms people: they aren’t themselves. One time the pain was too much for him and he committed suicide. Thank you God for Dan. It hit me hard, because it came out of nowhere. I never would have imagined I’d have to deal with that. I’ve actually had another good friend commit suicide before, so I kind of had an idea of how difficult it would be to grieve, but as always, I had hope in God. It helped that Dan was a Christian at least, it made me feel much better. We all have that longing for eternal life, to be with our loved ones forever. That’s how we were created to be.

I kind of went on with the hopeful but curious mindset after the wake and funeral.. after all, suicide is a major sin. God can forgive it, especially when people are not in the right state of mind, but it’s never something to joke about. So I always had hope, God is so merciful, after all. One day a week later his whole family came back down to the University of Illinois for our memorial mass for him, and his mom shared this story with us at the end: Dan has an uncle who is a Salesian priest in Japan or Korea or something like that. On the same exact day that Dan died, even at the same exact hour, Dan’s uncle was saying mass and lifting up the Host at the consecration. At that moment, Our Lady, Mary, appeared to him holding Dan. There is no way that his priest-uncle all the way in Japan could have any idea what was going on let along timing the whole thing down to that hour. Praise God for that sign, we now know that Dan is in heaven. God’s mercy is endless, and our hope has to be in Him.

I’d like to share with you Dan’s last Facebook status ever.

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty at Calvary.”

Happy Easter! He is risen indeed!

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One thought on “El Dia de los Muertos and the Catholic Take on Death

  1. Pingback: Dia de los Muertos: Why are the Skeletons Happy? | Thoughts from a Catholic

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