Yesterday, in the playful spirit of Halloween, I texted a friend, “Boo!” His reply was, “LOL, ‘Boo!’ to you! But Halloween is still tomorrow!”
That’s today. All Saints’ Day. Dutifully, I told him that today is not Halloween, but All Saints’ Day. Halloween, or “All Hallows’ Evening” is celebrated on the eve of All Hallows, that is, the eve of All Saints. Indeed, Halloween, with its apparently Celtic roots celebrating the end of summer and its “Christian” manifestation in ghosts, ghouls, spooky pumpkins and “Trick or Treating,” is not endemic to the Philippines. On the other hand, considering that Catholicism was itself brought to the Philippines, as far as customs are concerned, what is endemic to the Philippines? If the people celebrate it, they make it endemic. In time.
The Daily Roman Missal describes “All Saints’ Day” as the feast that “celebrates all the unknown saints who are now in Heaven. Sanctity is within everyone’s reach; through the Communion of Saints each part of the Mystical Body of Cbrist helps every other to grow in holiness.” Certainly, anything but Halloween! On the other hand, if this is the day when we celebrate the Unknown Saint and the hope that we too might be numbered among the saints (Remember, Jesus’ criterion for separation of the saved from the damned: “Whatever you have done to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, that you have done to me.”), why is it that we celebrate this day in the cemeteries? Is that not behavior that is more appropriate for All Souls’ Day?
The same Daily Roman Missal says of All Souls’ Day, “The Church, after celebrating the feast of All Saints, today prays for all who, in the purifying suffering of Purgatory, await the day they will join in heavenly glory.” Presuming that one is not separated irreversibly from the eternal love of the Lord through mortal sin, ultimate union with the Him demands purification from other sins. Purgatory is where this purification takes place. On All Souls’ Day, one prays for the dead in the hope that through prayers and sacrifices they might more quickly enter into the peace and joy of heaven.
So why do Filipino Catholics flock to the cemeteries on All Saints’ Day? Their mood is not somber, but festive. Families gathered around the resting places of their loved ones, who have taken care to clean the grave sites and adorn them with flowers and candles, are in more of a picnic rather than a pious mode, and the favorite game of children has always been to collect the drippings of candles into balls as the elders enjoy what they have brought to eat and drink in the company of those who have “gone ahead.” Of course, there are prayers for the dead, and if a family is blessed, there is a priest or a deacon who appears to bless the site.
In my life, it was the great American Jesuit missionary, Fr. Art Shea, who in the homily of a Mass during the first week of our tertainship long retreat in Novaliches, explained that the reception of the Philippine Church of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days is one of great optimism. In the cemeteries on the Feast of all Saints, the Filipino faithful trust (rather than presume!) that their loved ones are numbered among All Saints. In this trust, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are merged into one. The hope of All Saints’ is brought to the cemeteries, and the prayer of All Souls’ is alive on All Saints. Prayers for loved ones’ are merged with prayers to loved ones, and the Eucharistic Meal of unity in the church is recalled in the cemeteries in the unpacked adobo, rice, fruit and candies, enjoyed in fellowship of those who have “gone ahead.” The flowers and the flickering candles make the mystery of the tomb less intimidating; the Filipino knows in faith that his is a religion not of death, but of life, not of sin, but of forgiveness, not of condemnation, but of redemption.
So is the “Church Triumphant” in Heaven on this happy day unified with the “Church Militant” on Earth and the Church in purification. All come together in the communion of people touched by the love and compassion of God in Jesus Christ.
The merged celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days in the Philippines is part of the genius of the Philippine reception of the Faith. The Gospel for today recounts the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. … Blessed are you when they insult you, and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Cf. Mt. 5:1-12a). Through Christ, we celebrate for ourselves and for our loved one, in their presence, the hope of the Kingdom of Heaven, trusting in the Him who conquered Death and redeemed us from sin.
Not “Boo!” today, but “Siya nawa, Aleluya!”