Are you following this prescription for life? Are you waking up every morning, excited as if the mind and body are shouting, “Yes! It’s a new day to live again”?
While jogging today, I ran past a quiet, older car that looked like it had been parked in that space and forgotten by time. It’s exterior was covered in a thick layer of dust that gave the paint a color of faded evening fog. It might have gone unnoticed had it not been for something bright and colorful that covered the driver’s seat. It was a black t-shirt covered with painted fluorescent letters that read “Let’s Celebrate Life.” Curious, I peaked inside and noticed the shirt was from a concert that took place on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. And no, the irony wasn’t lost on me.
If you haven’t seen the Disney Pixar movie Coco, then you need to. It does a great job at explaining this wonderful Mexican holiday that honors the dead. Or as the movie poster states, it’s The Celebration Of A Lifetime.
For the first two days in November, families and friends throughout Central and South America (and in parts of the US) celebrate Dia de los Muertos. They gather together to pray for the dead and remember their story by sharing tales with one another. This, according to Coco, keeps their memories alive, while supporting those who have passed on with their spiritual journey.
Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, where pictures of the deceased are place alongside replicas of artistically and brightly painted skulls, as well as the favorite food and beverages of the deceased. The ofrenda is then showered in the golden petals of Aztec marigolds. All to honor and celebrate death.
Let’s face it, death is a natural part of the human cycle. It doesn’t take good science to verify this, just time. But what’s important about this ancient Mexican tradition is their point of view that death is not viewed simply as a day of sadness but one of celebration. In fact, according to Coco, during Dia de los Muertos it is believed that their loved ones awake from their “after life” and celebrate with them here, in the now. They are not visible like ghosts who can be seen or heard, but as part of the Spirit - present in the the celebration of life itself.
But what if they could be seen? What if we could hear what they had to say? What might the dead have to tell us about life?
There’s a weird story in Luke’s gospel (16:19-31) about a rich man dressed in the finest purple linen clothes and a poor beggar named Lazarus, who was covered in nothing more than sores. The rich man constantly ignored the beggar’s pleas to be fed. One day both men die. Lazarus is carried by angels to be by Abraham’s side (I would call this heaven). The rich man (who has no name) also dies and winds up being tortured in Hades (what others have gotten the concept of hell).
In their respective afterlives, the rich man sees Lazarus in a place of goodness and calls out for a sip of cold water, “for I am anguished in this flame.” Answering for the poor man is Abraham, who reminds the rich guy what he used to do for poor Lazarus while he was alive. Then the rich man pleads to the patriarch, “Then I beg you to send him to my brothers and warn them so they don’t end up here with me.” But Abraham, citing Moses and the Prophets, responds by saying, “If they do not hear what has already been said, they won’t be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
It’s safe to say Jesus tells this story to warn his followers that what they do matters. How they honor God’s call to love others will matter both now, and later. Jesus knows he will die (after all, it’s inevitable) but I wonder if he knew he would be resurrected. This weird little story seems to suggest he didn’t really know or understand, perhaps because his focus was on living now and not dying later.
Dia de los Muertos isn’t just about celebrating the life of those who passed on, but it's a reminder for us all to celebrate life right now. Throw a party. Serve your favorite foods, singing your favorite songs, share stories and jokes, laugh, cry, hug, kiss, and dance. Be happy. Be at peace and not anxious about anything. Experience life right now in all the fullness of its glory.
If we only focus on the death and dying part of life, we miss out on the great party and celebration that has been prepared for us today. Jesus often talks about the banquet table, where there is room for all people and plenty of wine to go around.
Life is about sitting at this table, sharing what we’ve been given with others, and celebrating in community together (because one day our life might be in need of something, and you might be on the end of help. Life is meant to be lived well so that when it's our turn to die we can do so knowing we fully and faithfully lived.
When asked what surprised him the most about humanity, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying: “Man... Because man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
To quote one of my favorite punk rock bands, Flipper, “Life is the only thing worth living for!” So what do you say? Let’s live it. Who knows? One day our picture will line the ofrenda next to a honey glazed donut and a super hoppy double IPA showered in Aztec marigolds. And they will say, “Damn, they knew how to live life.”