Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

November 2, 2008: “Why We Still Worship the Ancestors”

Some Halloween humor: A squad car driver was covering a quiet beat out in the sticks when he was amazed to find a former lieutenant on the police force covering the beat. He stopped the car and asked, “Why, Mike, this wouldn’t be your new beat out here in the sticks, would it?”

    "That it is," Mike replied grimly, "ever since last Halloween when I arrested the local Judge on his way to the masquerade ball."
    "You mean you pinched his honor?" asked Pat.
    "How was I to know that his convict suit was only a costume?" demanded Mike.
    "Well," mused Pat, ""that's life and there's a lesson in this somewhere."
    "That there is," replied Mike, NEVER BOOK A JUDGE BY HIS COVER."

From a book called Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall

Dear God,
On Halloween I am going to wear a devils costume. Is that all right with you?

Dear God,
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why dont you just keep the ones you got now?

    This holiday tells us that we still have need for myth, for an escape from reality for a while, for fun, for laughter, for a lightening of the spirit. And oh, yes, I guess because we spend more than 2 billion dollars on candy and costumes!

It tells us that we still need to connect to our ancestors, yea, even we thoroughly modern, post modern, neo-post techno-atheists who would argue until we were blue in the face that we don’t believe in god, gods, goddess, ghosts, or ancestor worship! But through mask and myth is as strong today as it ever was, perhaps because we thought we were beyond that kind of superstition and myth, not realizing that we ourselves are partially reincarnated by the genes of our ancestors, know and unknown, and if we don’t believe that, ask anyone who deals in DNA!

:Myth says the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestations… religions, arts, sciences, the social forms of primitive and historic man (humanity), prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth… Myth, he continues, is a directing of the mind and heart, by means of profoundly informed configurations, to that ultimate mystery which fills and surrounds all existence.

    This sacred time of year we gather here for perhaps the same reason since time began to understand, yea even worship, the difference between the mystery of life and the even greater mystery of death when it comes comes to one of our family. We call this time by many names, and we think many different religions, but I think they are all about the same thing. What happens when our loved ones die? What will happen to us when we die? We might want to add the mystery as well of birth; where were we before we were born? And of the course, as I have said, the answer is quite simple. We return to the place where we were before we were born., and I mean before we conceived, before we were the potential in our fathers sperm or the waiting in our mothers egg or the fetus in our mother's womb. And where do our ancestors go? How shall we remember them honor them? Indeed, how shall we be protected from some of the meaner ones?

    We shall call it All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain, Day of the Dead. Or as the Zuni say in New Mexico, ahoppa awan tewa,-the dead their day. Like the Mexicans were influenced by the Catholic Church, the Zuni and other Southwest tribes were influenced by the Mexicans. The Zuni children go forth on All Souls day saying:   Oremos, oremos,/angelitos semos,/del cielo venemos/ Si nos dan/ puertas y ventanas/ que braremos.   Lets pray, lets pray,/We Are little angels,/ from heaven we come./If you dont give to us Your doors and windows we will break.

p. 407 Primal religions also celebrate the presence of ancestors.
Those who are dead are never gone;
They are there in the thickening shadow.
The dead are not under the earth;
they are in the tree that rustles,
they are in the wood that groans,
they are in the hut, they are in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.
Those who are dead are never gone,
they are in the breast of the woman,
they are in the child who is wailing
and in the firebrand that flames.
The dead are not under the earth;
they are in the fire that is dying,
they are in the grasses that weep,
they are in the whimpering rocks,
they are in the forest, they are in the house,
the dead are not dead.
–Birago Diop quoted in The Fruitful Darkness by Joan Halifax

Did you know that Halloween predates Christianity by at least 500 years? That it is probably more venerable than that, surviving virtually intact from the earliest days of European history? That it is arguably the oldest continually observed holiday in the Western Hemisphere?

Some of you are saying, wait – what about the festivals that predate Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s Eve? Yes, these too are ancient, but unlike Halloween, they have undergone dramatic changes. New Year’s Eve, once celebrated throughout the ancient world in March, at the time of the vernal equinox, is now observed in midwinter. Christmas and Easter, once pagan celestial festivals, have been transformed into Christian feasts. Only Halloween has remained resolutely pagan in character and content. Not even the date of its celebration has changed.

During the observance of Halloween we partake in some aspects of the lives of our ancestors. For they, too, entered into the spirit of this night; they, too, told ghost stories, dressed in costumes, cracked nuts and drank sweet cider by roaring bonfires, read fortunes, feared magic, and saluted the dead. In discovering something about them we discover something about ourselves.
Rev. Audrey W. Vincent, D. Min., Unitarian Universalist Church, Savannah, GA
We still worship the ancestors partly because it is the most ancient of religious practice besides nature worship, which of course, is also related. since it is the turning of the seasons. In the traditional churches we may call it all souls or all saints if we like to make it more palatable and Christian, to make it seem less pagan, to cover up the old ways, as if there was something wrong with them, as if we could really cover them up when we look deeply at the holidays that we seem to celebrate still today!

    During  La Dia de Muertos,  in the Hispanic culture there is also an attempt to deal with the dead and corresponding spirits, using skeletons as a common motif, often in humorous and/or macabre ways. Graves of the family are venerated, cleaned and used as a picnic ground to honor the dead with food and drink (sometimes called spirits) often left for the departed. Part of it, writes Octavio Paz, is to...poke fun at life, affirming the nothingness and insignificance of human existence... Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are. 

    From a book entitled, Dancing Moon, a collection of poems and meditations written in the spirit of the Pueblos of New Mexico by Nancy Wood:

“Love Song”

I shall see you again, if the world lasts, even though
you are gone from my sight. My breath creates
new life for you, now that we are apart and
the universe lies here in the ashes of my memory.

I shall see you again, if the world lasts, in the nighttime sky,
where even the separated stars move together
in the same direction. As moon follows sun, so shall I
follow you across our star-lined path, the one we created

Together. Do you remember? Come, my friends, and find me
crying on a mountaintop, where my tears
make new flowers bloom. Come run with me through
dreaming fields and catch rainbow colors for our eyes.

The way we used to. Our holy place is holy still;
our love is not diminished by absence or by pain.
Death has but interrupted our loving, and I know
I shall see you again, if the world lasts.

The Mexican poet Salvadore Diaz Miron writes in his poem called :
If, in your garden, when I die,
When I die, a flower appears;
If in a cloud-rumpled sky you see a star,
You see a star no one has ever seen;
And a bird comes close and murmurs to you,
Murmurs to you with a sweet sound,
Opening his beak a;long your lips
Saying the things I have said to you:
That broken sky, and that bird.
And that star, and that flower–
They will be my life: changed,
All changed, according to God’s law.

They will be my substance under another face-
Wing and corolla, coal and mist;
They will be my thoughts transformed–
Odor and air, song and sun.
I am a body–when will they bury me?
I am a traveler—when do I go?
I am a larva, transmuting itself–
When will God’s law come to pass
And O my bright children I become
Sky and bird, flower and star?

    Oh how I miss my ancestors. And how I wish I had known more of them. So many of us no longer live in the same town we grew up in, and especially in the same town our parents grew up in or our grandparents grew up in. sometimes not even the same state or even country!  Someday it might even be the same planet!  So while I don't go to church to worship my ancestors, I do want to honor my ancestors and perhaps that might be as important. I want to love them and remember them.         My ancestors are primarily from New Hampshire and it is there where I feel my ancestral roots and memories  are, where my ancestral home is. I don't worship them like Gods, but remember those who are now gone -Nana Johnson, Grammy Severance, Uncles Charles Johnson , Leslie Tucker  , Great Uncles Jack, Heath  Andrew Jenkins , Arthur Seymour , Bill, Ralph Jenkins, Aunt Clara Tucker , Dorothy Heath ,  Great Aunts Dolly, and Kay Seymour  and especially my Mom,  EvaMae and Dad,  Harry Severance. 

    For many of us our family scrapbooks are ancestor worship aren't they? We love to get them out, especially around holidays and tell the stories, remember those departed and pass on the legacies and isn't that kind of ancestor worship without the superstition, perhaps, though most of our families have one or two stories that sometime seem to border on the supernatural!  On this time of the year the fall, the harvest, the time of Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, Day of the dead, and leading up to Thanksgiving, which has become a modern part of ancestor worship, because we remember the dead and we try to fool ourselves into not being scared of the old fashioned beliefs of ghosts and goblins and all the evil spirits, though the resurgence of wiccan, pagan, and earth centered religious  practitioners as positive forces are working on changing the negative stereotypes, especially seen around Halloween, but it will take time!  The words witch and wiccan come from the same root as wise and wisdom, and the early women suspected of being witches were those wise women who usually were knowledgeable of the healing herbs and plants and a threat to the males who were the doctors and often, I'm sorry to say, not as wise!

    We are, after all, evolved from our ancestors; to them we say-thanks a lot! If only some of you had been smarter or better looking or built up a vast fortune!

Upon the altars of our hearts and minds we light candles to sacred pictures; to the metaphors of statues. We seek to transcend the mystery of nature, of creation and destruction, of life and death, joy and sorrow, passion and pain. Some of us can cry openly, others silently, but all of us have lost a loved one either human or human companion. Grief is not an enemy but a sign of love, a hurt of the heart, and while it will never fully go away, it will become part of our ongoing lives and loves. We will be healed of the great sorrow by time and love, but we will never forget; we will honor our dead by the good and meaningful living of our own lives, blessed by having known and loved our departed. Let us strive to live the good and to become part of the transformation of the world through love.

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, So I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.