a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday November 4, 2007 - Dia de los Muertos
Some days the Spirit summons us to bow our heads in reverence, and kneel humbly before the awesome presence and power of all Creation.
Other days we are inspired to lift our eyes skyward to the horizon and toward the heavens, to cast our gaze upon the hills from whence comes our strength.
The Spirit moves where it will; we hear the sound of it, but we know not whence it comes nor whither it goes.
We feel its presence like the wind upon our faces; like a rustling breeze amidst the branches of trees.
The cold, bitter, biting winds of winter, which leave our lips numb and chilled.
The fresh, fragrant gusts of blossoming life in spring.
A cool, summer sea breeze blowing gently over the face of the water.
A breath of fresh air on a brisk autumn morning.
But whatever the season of the year,
And whatever the season of our lives,
The Spirit Calls to us....
Speaking to us out of the whirlwind,
Speaking to us out of the silence,
Calling to us to give Voice to its Truth.
Through our words,
And our deeds,
And our lives....
[Extemporaneous Introduction: “Emergency Back-up Sermon Generator”]
I’ve been thinking an awful lot about Time this past week, and not just in terms of this whole annual “Spring Forward, Fall Back” routine. Rather, I’ve been thinking about Time as a measure of our Lives, and of the various ways in which we, as post-modern 21st century men and women, do or do not live our lives in time to the rhythms of the Universe.
And with these reflections have come a momentary period of contemplation upon the nature of Time itself as well; and how our understanding of Time -- what it is, what it means -- has changed over the years as a result of our changing lifestyles. For example, is Time fundamentally linear or circular? Does it progress from beginning to end, or rather repeat itself seasonally for all eternity? Or maybe it’s a little of both. Or maybe it’s really neither. Maybe all the Time we will ever truly know or have is right now in this moment: and the past is just a memory, the future merely a dream. And how can we be sure from one moment to the next whether what we THINK we are experiencing is really real, and not simply some figment of our imagination, an orderly structure we impose upon our subjective experience of a fundamentally chaotic Universe?
We can come back to these abstract metaphysical speculations any time we like; they’ve been around since time immemorial, and I’m not really sure that anyone has actually figured them out yet...except maybe Stephen Hawking. But I do just want to remind everyone here once again why we observe this particular holiday: because this is once more the time of the year when the ancient, pre-Christian Northern European “pagans” -- the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Celts -- believed that the World of the Living and the World of the Dead were at their closest proximity.
And if we simply pause and take a moment to look at the world from their perspective, you’ll see that it all makes perfect sense. This is the Season when the great Circle of Life enters into its period of dark, cold, deathlike dormancy. From life to death to rebirth in the spring, the cycle repeats...yet here in the heart of Autumn is the threshold between the last lingering days of the living and the eternal night that is death. It is a liminal time, when the boundaries are indistinct, and spirits might move freely from one realm to the other.
And of course, over time, and with the coming of Christianity, All Hallows Eve became All Saints Day, and the Feast of All Souls, (and in some Latin American cultures, Dia de los Muertos -- “The Day of the Dead”). Just as the birth of Christ came to be commemorated four days following the longest night of the year; and the miracle of Easter, of course, reoccurs annually in the Spring, on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Human beings learned how to tell time in the first place from the heavens. The only real problem is that now we know that the Clockwork Universe tends to run a little slow.
Most of us probably don’t think about it that often, but the reason there are seven days in a week and four weeks to a month is that it takes 28 days for the moon to wax and wane from new to full to new again. But for some inexplicable reason, although mathematically there 360 degrees in a circle, there are actually 365 days to a year, which tends to throw a little glitch into the easy and elegant symmetry of 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to a degree, all of it so neatly divisible by Pi.
And what a difference a day makes. A day, of course, is the amount of time it takes for the earth to revolve once around its axis: a period of time which, by convention, consists of twenty-four hours of daylight and darkness, give or take a few seconds. But the problem, of course, is that the earth wobbles as it spins, and it’s orbit also has a little tilt to it, which means that depending on how far north or south you may be at any given time of the year, within that same 24-hour period some “days” are noticeably longer than others...or at least that part of the day that happens in daylight.
And when does a day properly begin anyway? Does the new day dawn at sunrise, when the rooster crows and awakens all within earshot from their sleep? Or perhaps it’s more reasonable to wait until sunset, at the end of the day, which would logically mark the beginning of the next day as well. Or perhaps it’s really most logical to begin the new day at the Meridian -- high noon -- when the Sun is directly overhead, and thus equidistant in terms of time between dawn and dusk. This is the way a sundial works: one of the world’s oldest and most reliable timepieces. And it is also how sailors at sea have historically marked the time, since it is so essential to their ability to calculate their location, no matter where they may find themselves upon the globe.
But to begin a new day at midnight -- as we do these days -- seems completely arbitrary, especially since without some sort of artificial timepiece, there is really no good way of even telling when midnight is.
The time was that every local community set its clocks by the heavens; they looked up into the sky, figured out when the sun was directly overhead, set the big hand and the little hand straight up to twelve noon, and thus divided the day evenly into two equal halves: Ante-Meridian and Post-Meridian, AM and PM. It wasn’t until the development of railroads in the 19th century that the perceived need for more reliable timetables created a push for “Standard” time -- so that noon in Portland would be the same as noon in Boston or noon New York, even though the sun shines on us a lot sooner here “Down East” than it does in those other places.
And once the timekeepers learned that they could break faith with the heavens and tinker with time, all sorts of mischief was soon in the works. Farmers have always tended to work from dawn to dusk, regardless of when or where they have lived. But modern office and factory workers tend to work in eight hour shifts (typically from nine to five), forty hours a week...so as the days grow longer and the evenings more pleasant, why not simply move nine AM a little earlier in the day, so that folks can save a little more daylight for the evening after work?
And of course, the great irony is that the further we drift from living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the seasons, the more we become a civilization of clock-watchers laboring under artificial light, only to feel like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done that we want to get done. At the end of the day, it often seems as though all that our many so-called time-saving technologies have done for us is to accelerate the pace of life itself, leaving us with less time left over for ourselves than our ancestors enjoyed even just a generation ago.
Then again, as the saying goes, we can always sleep when we’re dead....
None of us really knows for certain the measure of our days. We can consult the actuarial tables; we can look to our family medical histories; we can simply cross our fingers, close our eyes, and try not to think about it very much at all. But it’s all just speculation; a little educated guess-work. At some point each of us figures out that we probably have a lot less life left in front of us than is already behind us, but even this is simply an abstraction, because let’s face it -- the past IS history, while each new day is a new beginning. And likewise, there are many who would say that it’s not so much the time we have left to live, as it is the amount of life we squeeze out of the time we do have left...
But the real secret, it seems to me, to truly getting the most out of life in the time we have been given, is to learn how to live life fully present in each moment. And believe me, this is really hard, especially for those of us whose imaginations tend to fly off at the drop of a hat far into the distant future, while at the same time lingering nostalgically over days long past, and procrastinating shamelessly about whatever is near at hand.
But to aspire to live life fully present in the moment, taking each day as it comes while still moving forward toward some future goal, -- patiently, persistently, tenatiously...one day, one step, at a time -- still cherishing those fond memories of good times we might wish would last forever, and letting go of those bitter memories that only hold us back -- it’s a worthy ambition, even though we may never fully achieve it before we die. To live each day as if it were our first, and not just potentially our last...it’s the challenge we all face every day of our lives, no matter how many years we may have already lived.
Which brings us at long last to that age-old question, what happens to us after we die?
The short answer is easy: nobody really knows -- or at least not anybody alive today. And the Scientific answer isn’t really all that much more complicated. Our hearts stop beating, we take our final breath, the synapses in our brains fire for the last time, and the complex organic compounds that make up our bodies slowly but inexorably begin to decay, returning once more to the earth from whence they came.
But is that really the end of “us?” -- a few pounds of chemicals and an awful lot of H2O, recycled back into the system to be used in some other combination. What about our individuality, our unique personality, our “soul” -- that essential “spark” that makes us who we are, and which gives our life meaning?
And I’m sure there are some who would suggest that if this really WERE all that there is, than maybe our lives ARE meaningless....
But I know in my heart that our lives HAVE meaning. I know how much the lives of the people commemorated on this table by these pictures, and these flowers, and these candles, have meant to all of you. And so I know that there is more to life than merely living, and that are deaths are merely another moment in time.
Pray with me now, won’t you?
Loving Creator of all that is, who gives us life and gives our lives meaning... We dwell in this place for but a brief time, yet within this eyeblink on the face of eternity, so much has been given to us. And so we give thanks for this great gift of life, and for the lives of all those who have touched or own, and helped make us who we are today, in this moment. May our own lives speak as testimony to their worthiness, and may their presence among us never be forgotten....