Saturday, November 02, 2013

Dia de los Muertos

Growing up in New Orleans, the only All Souls Day tradition I was familiar with was visiting the cemetery--My godmother is probably to be found at this moment in St. Louis Cemetery #2, sprucing things up a bit at the final resting place of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. (The name inscribed on the family tomb is that of my great-great-grandfather.)

When I entered the convent, the sisters still had the custom of setting up a catafalque (a fake coffin) in the chapel, draped in cloth and surrounded by candles on tall candlesticks. We would pray an entire "rosary" using the beads to pray 50 times the prayer for the faithful departed: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen." It was all piously somber and subdued.

As the years have gone by, I learned of only a few other All Souls Day traditions: the permission priests had to celebrate three Masses; the Italian almond cookies called "dolci dei morti" (made only for November 2); finally, the Mexican traditions for the "Dia de los Muertos."

Until three years ago, the only thing I knew about the Dia de los Muertos was that candy was shaped
Making their way to Albuquerque's Dia de los Muertos parade.
into skulls and given to the kids. Then I took one of the Chicago walking tours into the Pilsen neighborhood, where a visit to the cultural museum presented me with macabre figurines of festively dressed skeletons dancing, playing music, getting married... I began to realize that the Dia de los Muertos was a way of thumbing one's nose at death, which, after all, has already lost the final battle. And then last year I was in New Mexico at the beginning of November, and went to Mass in Old Town Albuquerque right when a Dia de los Muertos parade was about to begin.

St Paul would probably have nodded in appreciation (once he got over the cultural shock!).  As an apostle, he knew: "Death is working in us, but life in you" (2 Cor 4: 12), but that went for everyone: We were buried with Christ in baptism (Rom. 6: 4), and having died, our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).

Obviously, there are a lot of pre-Christian customs that have been preserved in the Dia de los Muertos. I see that as a strength: the faith was able to "claim them for Christ" and put his stamp on everything.  The in-your-face celebrations of the Day of the Dead become a way of declaring with Paul: "Even though our outward self is perishing, yet the inward person is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4: 16-18). 

The Dia de los Muertos is a day of hope!

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