Affirming Death, Celebrating Life
A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on All Saints Day, November 1, 2009.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is perfect—for Halloween. Look at it. You have everything you need: a cemetery (of sorts), a grave, a corpse—looking something like a mummy—and a raising of the dead to life. I mean the gospel no harm by pointing this out. At first sight it is a stretch, however, to find something in this story that fits the theme of All Saints.
That is so because the Church has been busy telling itself for a generation or two that All Saints is about us. And, of course, to a large extent that is true. As we will sing later in the liturgy today, “They were all of them saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too,” the thrust of All Saints has been our being saints, or at least in becoming saints. It is a good thing that we be inspired to live virtuous lives. The great roll call of saints our litany powerfully trumpeted this morning not only stirs us to remember how many heroes stand beside us whispering words of encouragement, cheering us on, but also impels us to join that great caravan and become models, mentors, and guides ourselves.
But we would miss something enormously important if we simply took All Saints as a call to become satisfactorily, or even outstandingly, moral. We would miss the vein running through this entire celebration: the plain fact of death. There is no escaping death, and Christianity, beginning with Jesus, knows it. All those heroes, all those ancestors whom we invoked to stand beside us have one thing in common. Shot or tortured or burned or peacefully buried, all of them died. So that is why a story about death is particularly appropriate on All Saints Day. It reminds us that there is a deep connection between death and sainthood. But exactly what is that connection?
Things are not always what they seem. That is the underlying truth of the gospel. Sometimes something looks for all the world to be life-giving—wealth, status, prestige—and it turns out to be the very thing that saps Life itself. And sometimes something looks to be very clearly an example of death—letting go, giving oneself away, laying down one’s life for one’s friends, forgiving one’s enemies—and that very thing shows itself to be the opposite of death, an instance of true Life asserting itself. It is easy to get all mixed up about these things, because there is something counter-intuitive about the truth. What looks like life is really death and what looks like death is really life, so how in the world do you tell what’s what?
When we begin to get confused (as inevitably happens when we start to become conscious of complexities), our instinct is to simplify things. We categorize things easily as good and bad, helpful or dangerous, and we affix labels onto them that frequently don’t ever fall off. They stick. This tastes good, so it must be life-giving. That feels like loss and danger, so it must be the way of death. So we begin to divide the world into light and dark. The next step is that we begin to make stories out of our labels. Then we start believing our stories. Suddenly we have whole narratives of what we need to live—property, status, power, money, security, romance—and equally potent narratives of what we must avoid—giving in, compromising, letting go, giving our stuff and ourselves away, being shunned.
One of the best metaphors, to my mind, for seeing how this all plays out is the metaphor of mask. We wear masks, as it were, to conceal our vulnerable selves. Deep down we must have a suspicion that somehow we have it all backwards, for the simple reason that all those things that keep promising life turn out to be drearily disappointing more often than we’d like to admit. And every now and again we do in fact surprise ourselves by running some risk, taking some stand, acting out of some courage, showing some unnecessary love, giving away something precious to us, and we discover how thrilling and fulfilling it is to quit protecting and pretending and to live exuberantly and joyfully.
Leo Leonni, a writer of children’s books, composed a story called The Green Tail Mouse, in which he tells of a group of field mice. One day a city mouse happens by and tells them all about Mardi Gras. Enchanted with the idea, they decide to have a Mardi Gras celebration. They make themselves masks, with faces of monstrous bears and lions and tigers and cougars. They like their masks so much that they don’t stop playing. They become the ferocious animals of their masks. They frighten each other. This once peaceful community begins to be driven by fear. One day a mouse happens by. Someone cries out that a giant mouse has appeared, and they shudder for fear. “You silly mice,” says the newcomer, “I’m no giant. I’m a mouse like yourselves. And you could see that I am just like you and you are just like me if you would take off those idiotic masks you’re wearing.” So one by one they begin to take off their masks. They build a great fire and burn them, and have more fun becoming just plain real mice than they ever had wearing their masks.
Leonni’s is a story that gets at the truth through a different route than the story of Lazarus, but it is the same truth. Someone appears who sees clearly and who speaks the Truth powerfully. Jesus appears at the tomb of Lazarus as the Resurrection and Life, strong enough to pull Lazarus out of death into life. “Unbind him,” Jesus orders, “and let him go.” Lazarus is set free. But the story is not just about a dead man coming to life again. It is about a Truth-telling, life-giving power that names the death-games which, like Leonni’s mice, humans play all the time. Someone appears who is who he is, not wearing a mask, not pretending. “Take off those silly masks,” he says. “Quit playing those death-games.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if you were beginning to see what all this has to do with Halloween and death, All Saints and life. Before Hallmark got ahold of Halloween and made a season out of it, and before the Christian right began to lose its mind and get all crazy about the demonic on Halloween, we had a festival, an occasion which poked fun at death. It also did something else, which one day we might recover. Halloween used to give us permission to become monsters and tricksters and ghouls and goblins for a night. Children didn’t know it, but grown-ups knew, if they were conscious at all, that there were parts of us that acted like monsters, and that we were capable of being every bit as fiendish as any fiend whose mask we wore. Halloween functioned as a rite of reversal. We embraced our mischief and our meanness, but only for a night. When All Saints dawned the next day, the King of Saints called us in a loud voice to lay aside our masks, to lay off the death-games, and to reclaim our baptism into freedom and truth. He called us to come out of our tombs and into the light of day. And he made us dance.
That is how saints are made. Christ does not call us to be two-dimensional plastic goodie-goodies, but to be real people who have dark sides and monsters in them but who have learned to take off their masks, embrace their humanity, and live in freedom and peace. One year in one of my parishes we gathered together for the youth group’s annual Halloween haunted house, all the kids and some of the adults in costumes and masks. But at a certain point in the evening we all formed a circle around the altar, read some lessons (including the raising of Lazarus) and then pulled off our masks to celebrate and receive Holy Communion, reminding ourselves that we are not only dust, we are also glory; not only hideous, but also beautiful; not only ghouls and goblins but also saints of God in the making.
Baptism reminds us that the only death we have to worry about is not the death that will end our earthly life, but the death-games we play with utter seriousness to puff up ourselves and frighten others. Baptism flows like a river through the universe, sweeping away all our masks, baggage, and armor, leaving us washed and ready to put on the garments of justice and holiness. And through the raging flood calls the voice of one who is what he is, with no pretense and no mask, saying, “You can be as real as I am, and as holy. Come forth. Live in the light. Be free.”
© Frank G. Dunn, 2009