Samhain Sunday Service Reflection
by John Beckett
Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
October 31, 2010
Imagine, if you will, that instead of living in 21st century America, with our technological wonders and overabundance of food in seemingly infinite varieties, you live in Europe three thousand years ago. There is no McDonalds, no Kroger, no Wal-Mart – your food supply depends not on a complex supply chain, but on you, your family and your neighbors.
The fields that were green in Summer and gold in Fall now lie bare, and the days that lasted so long have been growing shorter since Midsummer. The temperatures are turning cooler, and the first frost will be here soon. Winter is coming. Will the very young and the very old survive the cold? Do you have enough food to last not just till Spring but until next year’s harvest?
You have all worked very hard to harvest the grain, the fruits, and what vegetables you can preserve. You have moved your herds from the far Summer pastures to the nearby enclosures where you can guard and feed them. You have done all you can do – your fate is now in the hands of the gods.
In this harsh and uncertain environment, it’s easy to see how the people of an agrarian society would come to associate this time of year with death. And if their thoughts turned to death then their thoughts would also turn to those who were no longer with them.
At Samhain our thoughts turn first to our beloved dead – those we knew and loved who have left this life. Perhaps we’ve been too busy gathering the harvest – or in our times, beginning a new school year – to think deeply about the friends and relations who died in the past year. But now that the pace is slowing, we have time to contemplate them, to remember the meals we shared, the conversations we had, all the life we experienced together. Love never really dies.
It is not only our loved ones we remember at Samhain. What else died in your life this year? Did a relationship end? A job? A dream? We all suffer losses, some small and some great. This is the time to remember the good they brought into our lives, to mourn their loss, and then to let them go.
We cannot live in the past and ignore the present, so the season of Samhain gives us permission to pause from our daily living and intensely remember our departed loved ones. It is telling that the Celts chose this time as their New Years Day. Like them, we look back on the previous year and we remember our beloved dead, we celebrate their lives, and perhaps, we finish mourning them. But then we allow them to return to the Otherworld, the Land of the Dead, and we begin the new year here among the living.
The word “ancestors” is loaded with images of founding fathers and clan mothers, faded photos and cracked paintings of stern-looking people in strange dress; weathered tombstones your parents showed you as a small child, people you know you’re supposed to respect even if you don’t know exactly why.
Those strange looking people who share our names and a few facial features and seemingly little else tell us where we came from. When we hear their stories and learn how they lived, we begin to understand why Grandma was the way she was, why our parents did and said some of the things that puzzled us so as children – and why we do and say some of the things that puzzle us as adults. Our ancestors have passed down far more than their genes: they’ve passed down their beliefs and goals and values, as well as their concerns and fears and prejudices.
Some of us can trace our ancestry back centuries and some only a few generations, but eventually the records run out for all of us. But while we cannot pinpoint our earliest ancestors individually, anthropology and archeology can fill in where history cannot, and the stories they tell can be checked against the findings of genetics and linguistics.
No matter where you’re from, if you go back far enough eventually you wind up in East Africa, where the human gene line split from other primates about 5 million years ago. Our earliest human ancestors were Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus. About 50,000 years ago, a small number of Homo sapiens left Africa and we haven’t stopped moving since. The story of humanity is the story of immigration, invasions, and refugees.
We owe much to these early humans and pre-humans – we are here because they survived predators, disease, famine, and the great Ice Age. Their origins demonstrate what liberal religions have taught for thousands of years: we are all one family.
We like to think of people as “good” or “bad” but the truth is that we’re all more complicated than that. Adolph Hitler is responsible for perhaps the greatest crime against humanity ever committed. But there are films of him smiling as he played with children. And while our country and our faith owe much to the work of Thomas Jefferson, we can’t ignore the fact that he owned hundreds of slaves and freed only seven. Our commitment to Truth compels us to see our ancestors as they really were, both the good and the bad.
Every family – EVERY family – has members it’s not too proud of. Most of us non-conformist UUs don’t mind knowing we had a relative who was hanged for horse stealing in the Old West, but we’re a lot less likely to talk about those who supported wars we opposed, who got wealthy by exploiting others, who owned slaves. We cannot change who they were and what they did, but we can say “it stops here.” We can reject a heritage of prejudice and fear, and pass down to future generations a heritage of compassion and hope.
What if every mathematician had to rediscover the Pythagorean Theorem? What if every computer engineer had to invent the Univac all over again? What if every writer had to create her own language, or his own alphabet? We’d still be hunter-gatherers with hard lives and short lifespans, that’s where. Every discovery and every invention we enjoy came about because some person built on the discoveries and inventions of someone who went before them.
Last week Rev. Pam preached about some of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors: William Ellery Channing, Hosea Ballou, and Olympia Brown. Were it not for them and others like them, there would be no Unitarian Universalism, and if there was no Unitarian Universalism there would be no Denton UU Fellowship. We owe much to those who came before us.
Beyond that, how many people are unwittingly attempting the religious equivalent of reinventing the Univac? I reinvented universalism as a teenager. I could not reconcile the concept of eternal torment with a God powerful enough and wise enough to create the Universe. I came to the conclusion that whatever comes after death must be good for everyone, not just for the folks who follow the “right” religion. And then I spent the next twenty years trying to figure out what that meant beyond a rejection of hell. How much easier would it have been – and how much sooner would I have found my spiritual path – if I had built on the foundations laid by Hosea Ballou and John Murray and others like them?
Our UU Principles and Purposes acknowledge the right of conscience, and we correctly acknowledge the autonomy of the individual in religious matters. But how many people will recognize no authority but their own experience? How many have grown so distrustful of organized religion that they see no value studying the works of their spiritual ancestors? This Samhain, let’s commit to honoring our spiritual ancestors by learning their stories, studying their ideas and figuring out how to apply them to our lives here and now. And then we can stop reinventing the Univac and start laying the next round of religious foundations that our descendants will build on.
Like our agrarian ancestors, the season of Samhain turns our thoughts toward death. The certainty that this life will end and the uncertainty of what, if anything, comes after it naturally leads to fear – fear of loss, and fear of the unknown. The religions of the world have arisen in part to help ease these fears by promising an afterlife, and by teaching us to live in such a way that when our time comes, we can look back and say “it was good, and it was enough.”
Our popular culture likes to ignore death. Did someone you love die? Well, then pause for a moment of silence so no one can say you’re disrespectful and then get back to work, back to shopping, back to partying, back to pretending that our day to die will never come.
When we ignore death we allow our fear to fester like an untreated wound. Our denials allow that fear to grow and at the same time gives us an excuse to waste day after day chasing the vain materialism and shallow spirituality of the mainstream world.
As practitioners of free and honest religion, may we show the world a better way. May we remember the dead and honor them, and may we live our lives in full awareness that some day we will be the ancestors. Some day, future generations of Denton UUs will tell our stories and sing our songs. What mighty deeds will they recount? What acts of service and sacrifice will they praise? What great expressions of love and compassion will they remember?
May we live our lives so as to be worthy of their honor.