Homily for October 31, 2021: Proper 26, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Lectionary Readings Referenced:
It’s not every Sunday that your priest shows up wearing tights with ghosts on them (note: the color is liturgically correct!) so you know I’m not going to let this collision of days pass us by in a homily, either. I know that some of you, like me, may have been brought up in ways that polarized and separated secular Halloween and sacred Christianity. But these two days are inextricably linked in ways that are all about culture, folklore, tradition, and ritual. And they are all about life and death, grief and hope, and love. So we’re going to walk this holy ground of holy days together today.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in around the year 800, it didn’t mean that everyone stopped participating in all the cultural and spiritual practices that gave meaning and shape to their lives and communities. In the indigineous cultures of Europe, now occupied by the Romans, this particular season of the year was a high, holy time. It was the turning of the seasons, a “thin place” where the invisible separation between the physical world and the spiritual world began to fade away. In that thin place, people remembered those who had died, honored them, and welcomed their continuing presence in a way that felt as if it transcended time and place. When encountering mystery, especially the mysterious line between life and death, we struggle to find words to express the inexpressible. And so it was that customs and traditions evolved that could speak beyond words: lighting fires or burning candles for those who had died to be able to find the way back home; leaving food and candy, pictures and gifts to honor the dead; finding ways to communicate to those who had gone before about the lives that were still being lived on this earth. This season was, and is, a thin space in time where bittersweet grief can be expressed, honored and recognized in ways that aren’t always acknowledged as socially acceptable at other times of the year.
The Romanized Christian Church strategically placed a day each year on the liturgical calendar to remember the Christian Saints and Martyrs who it was believed still similarly guided the faithful even after their departure from this world. And so it was that All Saints Day came to be placed on November 1, coinciding with the indigineous traditions of local cultures and communities honoring their beloved dead at the same time. The Eve of All Saint’s Day…All Hallow’s Eve…what we now call Halloween….fell on a particular night that was already considered a thin place in the lives and cultures of folk traditions who were now under the rule of a Christianized Empire. People still wanted to honor their beloved dead and experience the mystery. Now, I’m under no illusion that this was done out of respect; it was clearly an attempt to colonize the old expressions with the “new” religion. That is the history of Western Civilization. But it doesn’t have to be that way. God is present in all things. So on this particular Halloween Sunday, I would remind us both in our festivities and our mystery that the source of these secular and sacred holidays is found at the intersection of life and death, grief and hope, and love.
Let’s walk back even further, to generations before Christ…about a thousand years, give or take. Our first lesson today from the book of Ruth also involves the intersection of two cultures through a story wrapped in these themes of life, death, grief, hope and love. We hear about a Hebrew family, from Bethlehem in Judah, who took up residence in a neighboring country, Moab, during a severe famine. The family patriarch died, and the two sons married within the local culture. Then, both of the sons died. The heart of this story we read today takes place among the Hebrew widow Naomi with two daughters-in-law from Moab, all of whom are in a precarious position. Unmarried women had no rights, no ability to earn a living, no safety. Naomi is grieving her spouse and her two only sons; she is isolated from her kin, and she has two young women at her side depending on her who are themselves in a precarious state. Starving, bereft and vulnerable in every way, Naomi casts what hope she has on the benevolence she has heard: the Lord considers his people. So, she turns toward home. And she imparts practical guidance to her daughters-in-law: Go, Leave Me. Find Husbands.
This wasn’t an idealized gesture; it was a necessity rooted in the desperation of a precarious situation. One daughter in law, Orpah, heeds her advice and returns to Moab, while the other, Ruth, clings to her. Ruth is eloquent in her expression of devotion. Naomi is bitter and silent.
Over the next few Sundays, the story of Ruth and Naomi will continue to unfold but today we have what we have. And what we have in that story is also all about life and death, grief and hope…all wrapped up in love.
Just the right passage, perhaps, for this All Hallow’s Eve Sunday
You see, the story of Naomi, Orpah and Ruth is timeless. In this short little narrative, this undeniably human story, we all see ourselves when grief pierces our lives. Perhaps we are bitter or angry and those emotions offer us an outward mask for our inner vulnerability. Perhaps we heed logic and make a decision to move on, not because we don’t care but because we need to preserve our well being. Perhaps we cling, and find meaning in our need to remain near and stay in proximity to other living, caring souls where we cannot let go.. In this story, we hear all of these responses as purely and wholly human. And, there is Good News here: God is present in all of them.
Let me repeat that: God is present in all of them.
God’s movement throughout the story of Ruth reveals God’s movement throughout human history. When we are grieving, God is there. When we are bitter, God is there. When we are desperately searching for security when life in this world is precarious, God is there. We acknowledge God’s presence with us in the living out of the two great commandments: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength AND loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we recognize God with us in all things, we can live in that love. When we live in that love, we pass that to others. Our lives become a liturgy of living into Divine love..
The boundless love of God isn’t subject to the limitations of time and place. Ruth and Naomi embody that in their story. Our communion of saints…the Great Cloud of Witnesses… inspire us through their stories. And those who are beloved to us in our own lives continue to fill us with the knowledge that the love of God never ceases, that love is strong as death. At this time of year, we remember them and honor them.
Halloween, All Saints Day, All Soul’s Day: these are the next three days on the calendar of our lives. How will we choose to live into the customs and the traditions for what they offer us? What form is our grief taking? Where are our hopes? Who and what are illuminating the path for us, in this world and beyond? Where is God in all of this?
If we feel bitter, like Naomi: God is there to show us that our lives still have meaning.
If we follow our logic and turn back, like Orpah: God goes with us.
If we cling, like Ruth: God reminds us that what we are seeking is always and already with us.
When we find meaning, truth, and wisdom in pondering all of these things: God is with us, too.
These days are filled with life and death, grief and hope. And with us, enfolding us, through all our days is the abiding and eternal love of God.