Juan is a pastor in Watsonville, CA. His town is 80% Hispanic. With Halloween approaching, he was telling me about the prevalence of celebrating Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Throughout Mexico, this holiday focuses on praying for and remembering friends and family members who have died. A darker version of the holiday involves actual worship of death itself.
Juan was noting this sinister side when he asked, "Do you know why they worship death?"
"Because if they worship it, they think death won't take them."
He spoke of a superstitious Mexican gang member whose rigorous devotion to death was supposed to keep him alive. Juan chuckled, "But he got shot."
An "enlightened" American may see this celebration as foolish and third world. But death haunts educated skeptics and humanists too. Just look at Google's ambition to "cure death." They launched Calico, a company that focuses on extending human life. Google founder Larry Page has been known for such "moon shot" ventures.
Is there much difference between the superstitious Mexican gang member and the P.H.D. research scientist attempting to combat death? Death haunts all of us. It the one indisputable thing that all humans share in common. We will all die, and so we develop "moon shot" attempts at defeating this foe.
I'm disheartened by Christians who try to placate death by minimizing it's wickedness. We say "he passed away" instead of the blunt "he died." We have funerals that avoid talk of death and become mere celebrations of "the good times." We are reluctant to visit aging and dying relatives in their final days because we "don't want to remember them like that."
Instead of a tone of appeasement, I suggest a two-fold approach to death. Let's be both honest and hopeful.
Honest: Be honest about the reality of death. Death is NOT good. It is NOT natural. It is a wicked consequence of our fractured humanity. God created us for life. Let's not sugarcoat or sanitize death's severity.
Hopeful: Our honesty about death allows us to see an immeasurable hope. We have to see the cruelty of the cross before we can understand the profound power of the empty grave. It is not our belief in heaven that makes us hopeful, but our belief in Jesus. His resurrection is a bold affront to death.
Resurrection is the most powerful answer to death that I have found. God defeats death by the death of One man. And he gives life through the life of the same man. This is the reversal of death's curse. We are no longer haunted.
Wherever you find yourself this Halloween, be honest and hopeful. For my part, I'll probably wear my clerical collar around the neighborhood. The last time I wore the clergy shirt on Halloween I got called "father," and voted "best costume."