THE CEMETERY IS ABLAZE WITH LIGHT… IN THE GLOW OF CANDLELIGHT, THE DARKNESS IS DISPELLED… IT IS A DECLARATION THAT LOVE REMAINS ETERNAL AND THAT IT OVERCOMES THE SEPARATION THAT DEATH BRINGS.
There are many references in the Irish media today to what is called ‘The Gathering.’ It is the title of several recent novels, the name of a travelling show-band and the banner under which the Tourist Boards in Ireland and Scotland attract visitors to ‘the old country’.
This tourist campaign, ‘The Gathering’ consists of a series of cultural events throughout the year which celebrate the rich heritage and tradition of the Celts. It is a celebration of one’s ethnic roots, a time of remembrance and an experience that deepens one’s sense of belonging. Tracing one’s ancestors plays an important role in the scheme and it is an attractive way to appreciate one’s history and cultural identity.
THE HOLY GATHERING
There is another annual Holy Gathering that often goes unnoticed and is certainly not promoted by any tourist board. It is called the Communion of Saints and its highlight is celebrated at the beginning of November.
November is often thought of as a dismal month, a time of frost and decay and mourning for the dead. For the People of God, however, it surely must be otherwise. This is the month we count our spiritual blessings, chief among which is belonging to a pilgrim people that looks forward in hope to its goal of communion with all the saints. In the perspective of faith November should always be an occasion of joy. Nowhere do I find that joyful exuberance more evident than in the Philippines at this time. November first is a national holiday and a time of festivity.
A TIME OF FESTIVITY
Everyone spends the day in the carefree atmosphere of a large family gathering. But the venue for this gathering is surprising: it takes place in the local, town or parish cemetery. It is a day of home-coming and reunion summoned by the memory of the dead. The celebration begins a few days beforehand with a mass exodus from the city by land, sea and air as people return to their native towns and villages. Work is already underway at the local graveyard in tidying up and dressing the family plot where the beloved deceased lie buried.
FLOWERS, GARLANDS AND CANDLES
Though there is a subdued solemnity about remembering the dead, there is nothing sombre about this celebration. Quite the contrary, for the cemetery becomes a hive of activity and good cheer; it is spruced up and decorated for the Feast of All Saints. Garlands are laid, flowers in abundance are strewn on the graves, and candles are placed around them. The cemetery takes on the air and appearance of a town festival.
A FAMILY GATHERING AND A FAMILY MEAL
Great feasts are preceded by what is called the visperas or vespers which is the prelude to the main event and celebration. It takes place on the vigil, or the evening before the feast, and the excitement of anticipation often surpasses the joy of the actual day itself.
This is even more the case when the feat of All Saints comes round. The cemetery. The cemetery is ablaze with light as families gather round the graves of their loved ones. In the glow of candlelight, the darkness is dispelled and the wake goes on all through the night in a festive spirit. Drink and food are provided in much the same way as the Noche Buena (or Christmas Eve) opens the season of joy. The vigil is an expression of solidarity with the departed whose presence and friendship is recalled and intimately felt.
LOVE REMAINS ETERNAL
On this special day of commemoration the dead are not forgotten, rather they are still very much alive in the conversation and stories that are told. This is the gathering of all the family, the living and the dead and it is fittingly celebrated with a family meal. It is a declaration that love remains eternal and that it overcomes the separation that death brings.
THE CHURCH CELEBRATES THE TRIUMPH OF FAITH
In the Church’s universal calendar the feasts of All Saints and All Souls are held consecutively on November first and second. The Church first celebrates the triumph of faith in the glory of the Saints, and reminds the pilgrim people of their destiny in the New Jerusalem. She then turns her attention to those who are being purified and in need of intercession.
Heaven and earth are joined in common prayer for the faithful departed. In doing so, the Church tends to stress the different branches of the Communion of Saints [Church Militant (the faithful currently living on earth), Church Suffering (people in ‘transit to heaven’ going through the ‘cleansing fire’ termed by the Church ‘purgatory’; see for example 1 Co 3:15; Apoc 21:27; Mt 16:27) and Church Triumphant, those in heaven, beholding God face-to-face)] rather than its unity.
THE PEOPLE OF GOD – LIVING & DEAD – UNITED IN CHRIST
In the Philippines, however, the two feasts are fused into one and inspired by the one same spirit of joy. The saints are all the living and the dead who are united in Christ, and so the need for a separate celebration on November 2 seems redundant. This is in contrast to the practice of the universal Church. But have we not in this example of popular religiosity an insight of faith into the undivided unity of those who belong to Christ? November first is a red letter day in the Church calendar for it marks “The Holy Gathering” of the People of God.”
– This article by Fr Colm McKeating (explanatory text in brackets  added afterwards) was published in “Far East”, issue November 2013. For subscriptions, donations and information regarding missionary vocations please visit http://www.columbans.co.uk (external link) or http://www.columbansisters.org (external link).