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Sunday, November 03, 2019

A soulin' in Hallowtide

All Saints' Sunday - November 3, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry
Hey, ho, nobody home. (Hey, ho, nobody home.)

+In the name of the Great Mystery of God, who was and is and is to be. Amen.

Can there be anything more spectacular than the light in autumn? Well, except, perhaps, the light in spring? I have a particular affinity for the autumn light, the way it dances on the leaves as they change color before they die and fall off their branches; the soft, tender way it embraces the trees that have gone bare; the soft caresses it gives to a face surprised by the sudden chill in the air.

There’s a bit of magic in the air this time at the end of the harvest and beginning of winter. The ancients thought this time between the solstice and the equinox was a time when the veil between this world and the next was thinned and those who had died that year were now able to cross into the spirit world and otherworldly beings and fairy folk were able to cross into ours.  

Celtic spirituality celebrated this time as the pagan festival of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, and lit bonfires on fairy hills to help light the way to heaven for souls who were caught or stuck between worlds.

Pagans in Galicia in the northern part of Spain, influenced by the Celts, celebrate the Dia de la Muerte, the Day of the Dead. Those Spaniards who traveled to the “new world” brought those festivities with them. We see variations of them in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Haiti.

Americans native to this land have always worshipped the ancestors as have those in Africa and the African diaspora, which varies from nation to nation and tribe to tribe.

When the Christian movement began in those countries, much of pagan thought was easily co-opted by the Christian understanding of resurrection, heaven and hell, and their rituals were adapted and modified to accommodate this new belief.

In the Middle Ages in England, the Celtic festival of Samhain, the feast of the Dead, became a time for “a soulin’”. The time of October 29th  – November 2nd was known as “Hallowtide” – a holy time in the universe.

It was believed that some fairies caused mischief, but most likely that became a cover for the pranks and tricks which all children of every time and culture like to play, especially as the doldrums of a long winter stretched out before them.

The evening of November 2nd was the time when the poor and children would go a soulin’.

They would go from house to house, begging for money or food. “Soul cakes” were handed out, along with a penny or a ha’penny. Soul cakes are little cakes that look more like muffins and are richly filled with berries and nuts.

Other versions of soul cakes are a cross between what the British call a biscuit (but we call a cookie) and a scone; they are sweet and carry a cross made of currents (or, raisins). I’ve made both kinds for your pleasure at coffee hour.

The soul cake given to the poor and children had a currency all its own. It was believed that when you did an act of kindness for a poor soul, it would help move the soul of a loved one to pass on from Purgatory to Heaven – or, from being stuck here on earth to move on to be home with Jesus. Every cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory.

Whatever soul cakes were leftover were either left on a plate beside the door for hungry, haunted souls and fairies as appeasement against mischief. Or they were tossed into the bonfire as sacrifices for the dead.

As the poor and the children would wander from house to house, they would sing:
Soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please good missus a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
Yes, our modern practice of Trick or Treat no doubt comes from this old ritual, but more importantly, it is into this “Hallowtide” – this holy time which is midway between the solstice and the equinox, the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter – that the church hallows the saints who have gone on before us.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Gospel selected for this day is the Beatitudes from St. Luke, with the blessings and the woes, reminding us of the difference between here and there, between now and then, between heaven and earth.

There is great hope for the poor in these promises of Jesus.  

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” 

“Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.” 

And, there is a warning for those who think that the material things and the successes they have had in this life is all there is.

It is Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message that speaks most powerfully. He writes:
But it's trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you'll ever get.
And it's trouble ahead if you're satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
Jesus not only reminds us of our own mortality but also our human fragility. He calls attention to the dangers of self-satisfaction and greed, and the importance of living this life, this one life that we all have here on earth – to the betterment of our lives and others.

Jesus acknowledges that our human failings and flaws not only hurt ourselves, but others are also hurt. Other people go hungry. Other people are poor. Other people do not have shelter, much less a home. And, Jesus tells us that there is justice in the world.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., so famously said, “The moral arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice.” King didn’t just make that up. He got that from reading the Beatitudes.

Here’s the thing I appreciate about this Hallowtide, this time from October 29th-November 2nd .

For me, the whole theology of resurrection can be summed up in one line from the Eucharistic prayer we use at funerals – in both Rite I and Rite II. It is this: “for we know that life is changed, not ended.”

Changed. Not ended.

Let that sink in for just a moment.

It means that we believe in a life after this life. We don’t know what that life after this life will look like. We only believe that it exists. It doesn’t mean that one life has more value than the other. It means, to me, that all life is sacred.

To remember our loved ones who have died is not a morbid exercise. It is not an exercise in cheap sentimentality. Rather, it is a ritual that celebrates life – all life – in this world and the next. It is a ritual that honors the everlasting soul of every human being.

This is why the rubric for funerals in an Episcopal church, the casket is closed and covered with a pall. If the body has been cremated, we cover the urn with a pall. We do that because we do not place the emphasis on the body but on the soul. We celebrate the resurrection.

We honor the spirit of the person who has died, knowing that the body may be gone, but the spirit has united with the One who created us and gave us life and is bathed in Light Eternal.

Today, after the Prayers of the People, we will read the Necrology – the list of those who have died. I am going to ask you to participate in something people in Hispanic cultures practice on this Holy Day of All Saints. As the names are read, if you knew and loved that person or even if you didn’t know that person but you recognize the name, I’m going to ask you to say, “Present”.  

In doing so, we will be affirming life. We will be affirming our faith. We will be affirming what we say we believe about “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting. Amen.”

As a child, my grandmother would always observe this Hallowtide by taking the family to the cemetery where we would have a picnic lunch. We would spread our blankets near the graves of our relatives and she would tell us stories of their lives. She would also tell us stories of relatives we had never met – her father and mother and brothers who were buried back in Portugal. She would say to us, “You need to know about them so you can better know who you are.”

I suspect part of what’s wrong with our culture is that we live disconnected lives. We all live so far away from each other. Which can be overcome, of course, by visits and technology.

But I fear we don’t tell our stories to each other any more. It’s important to know the family stories – and all the characters and their stories. We need to know about them so that we can better know ourselves.

Eugene Peterson translates the last part of Luke’s gospel in this way:
There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests - look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors!
Your task is to be true, not popular."
As we move away from the end of the harvest and enter the beginning of winter, the days will become shorter and the nights will become longer. Soon and very soon, it will be Advent and we will begin to light candles to light the lengthening shadows as, once again, we await the coming of the one who is The Light of the World.

Until then, enjoy the autumn light. Let its gentle clarity guide you through the rustle of dead leaves, the dry, bare tree branches, and the barren cornfields. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have come before you and for all that they have made possible for you today. Count your blessings – name them one by one. Share what you have with those who don’t.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

And, take some time to enjoy the autumn light. There is an undeniable bit of magic in the air. Take a hint from what is happening all around you and try to slow down and enjoy and be grateful for this life you’ve been given.

If you are still, if you are quiet, if you listen, the sound you will hear as the wind blows the leaves to the ground and the barren branches clack against each other is life calling after life in the veil between heaven and earth which is especially thin this time of year.

Perhaps you too will find yourself doing your own version of “a soulin’” – looking for lost souls to help, to share what you’ve got with those who don’t, to commit a random act of kindness and bring a little light into a world that will soon grow dark and cold.

Transforming souls – your own and those of others – through kindness and generosity is the best magic of all.

My shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket
To put a penny in.

If you haven’t got a penny
A ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God bless you.

Soul, a soul, a soul cake.
Please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all.

Amen.

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