Rector's Ramblings November 1, 2017
This week The Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that one of the “31 Most Haunted Places in America” is right here in Georgia. It is none other than Christ Church, Frederica, as it turns out. Now, the source of the list, an annotated Google Map that has been viewed 400,000 times and counting, wishes to remain anonymous, so we don’t know why we were included or how we managed to make the list. Not that it matters. I find it interesting that our local legends have gotten that far, but I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised. Christ Church, I am often reminded, is known well beyond its cemetery walls.
With All Saints being this week, preceded of course by All Hallows Eve, this designation gives rise to two reflections. First, on the jumble of ideas surrounding Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, and hauntings, and second, with regard to what we’re known for. I ultimately think the two can be related, in a roundabout way, although we don’t necessarily think that way on a regular basis.
I will use All Saints as shorthand to refer to the three-day “holiday” of All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls day; two words is more convenient than nine, and if I used Allhallowtide I’d just be showing off! That’s not to say that the three days’ events are not unique and worthy of their own recognition. But for my purposes, I don’t need to differentiate between them today. The pertinent information is that All Saints commemorations are at least 1600 years old, with All Souls commemorations being closer to 1400 years old. In Anglicanism, we consider All Souls to be an extension of All Saints anyway. Combined, the holiday involves celebrating the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, specifically remembering the dead in our own lifetime. It can be a very powerful holiday, particularly if we have recently lost a loved one.
The observance of All Saints came about, in part, because Christians realized that there is a powerful spiritual bond between us and our loved ones who have gone before. In some ways, it is hard to put into words, and yet it is palpable enough that the commemorations around Saints (with a capital S), and saints like you and me, took hold and have been deeply imbedded in our Christian culture ever since. This year we are also including the Day of the Dead, a Mexican observance that has roots thousands of years old and was eventually combined with the Christian observance of All Saints. Day of the Dead celebrations are about remembering the faithful departed and actually encouraging the spirits of loved ones to visit, so that they can hear our prayers for them, as well as our thanks and good wishes towards them. There are often gifts for the dead as well.
On the surface, such commemorations can seem odd, and yet we often do the same thing in our culture. Why is that we leave fresh flowers on the graves of loved ones at holidays and on special occasions? Why do we raise a toast to people that are no long with us, or bury them with beloved possessions? All of it points to a reality that we have these deep, abiding connections that last beyond the grave. And that’s not too far off from our theology either. Our liturgy reminds us that we will see loved ones again at the time when we are all gathered back to God. Our goodbyes on this side of heaven are not final in that sense, but temporary. We don’t understand the how’s and the why’s of it all, but we trust that the eternal life we find in Christ really will allow for us to be with those we love in some fashion.
I am also fond of reminding people who are grieving that we are able to keep our loved ones with us when we remember them with intention, when we carry on their legacy, and when we give thanks for the gifts their lives give us long after they are gone. I know many people who find some symbolic reality that always brings their loved one near; butterflies, birds; the way light filters through trees. I have no doubt that when those associations take place, they become and remain powerful connections between this world and the next. We don’t understand the interplay of souls in heaven with this world, and we cannot discount it just because it does not make sense to us. It is too similar to the experience that many have had with the divine. Christian devotion is filled with unexplainable, yet tangible experiences with the holy and with things beyond this world.
I must also add, however, that I tend to be a “haunting” skeptic. Perhaps I’m just not able to buy into the Hollywood idea of what haunting is. It makes for dramatic storytelling, but in most cases I think what people attribute to haunting has more to do with our fears. But then I’ve never been haunted. To say that Christ Church is haunted is a bit of a stretch for me. I must admit, though, that Christ Church is also a “thin place,” one of the places I’ve encountered where the divine seems to come close. Perhaps when we acknowledge that and we combine the fact that it’s literally surrounded by graves and large trees that billow with moss in the breeze, it’s easy to see how we have been given a spooky label.
Regardless of what we make of hauntings, All Saints is a time to celebrate our loved ones and all those who have gone before, hoping that the distance and time between us is dramatically reduced by our commemorations and our prayers. With our events and services this week, I have no doubt that our loved ones will feel close at hand, if only for a brief moment. And if they are close, that means God, too, is close at hand. This is why All Saints remains a principal feast on the Christian calendar.
All of this leads me to my second thought about making list of haunted places. They say that all publicity is good publicity. If the list brings people to our beautiful and historic campus, in the hopes of finding ghosts, so be it. All the better if they meet modern day saints and see the Body of Christ at work, walking around in the world, as we have become Christ’s hands and feet. It’s one thing to be known for our history and our heritage, and it’s another to ALSO be known for who and what we are today. We are, and will always be, more than our history. All that has come before; the great people and their accomplishments, is prelude to what God is doing now.
Perhaps we should give thought to the legacy we are forging even now? Perhaps we should serve God in a way that this community makes lists for things a bit more faithful than our physical beauty and our legends about ghosts. Wouldn’t it be great to make the list of legendary outposts of Christ? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to belong to a community that was know far and wide for its service to the community? In truth, it’s not about being ranked in any way. Instead it’s about being who God calls us to be and living out the gospel in a way that we continue to become a community of saints, always welcoming, encouraging, and feeding the next generation of saints. That’s really all it takes, and in some ways we’re on our way already. If we can do that, I have no doubt people will continue to flock to Christ Church. We will be known far and wide beyond our cemetery walls. And some of them might not have ever heard about the ghosts.
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. BCP 395
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. BCP 245