Since childhood, November was one of my least favorite months. Halloween’s candy was long eaten and Christmas felt too far away.The leaves lost their brilliant hues and fell to the ground, leaving bare branches up high and a raking chore waiting below. Gray skies and a gray heart.
In Divinity School, I discovered All Saints Day, which helped start my gray month off with a gild of theological wonder. My favorite image of All Saints was the across-time-and-space unity of the people of God, the sense of a cosmically bigger picture than any human mind could comprehend. That “cloud of witnesses” stretched far and wide and deep, surrounding us all with their stories and faith, weaving us together as one family.
In my time as an eldercare chaplain at a Continuing Care Retirement Facility, our All Saints observance involved lighting candles for each community member who had died the preceding year. We talked about each light being a reflection of the light of Christ our Savior; how each flame spoke to the life of a person who had touched countless other lives. We shared stories of the light these people had shed in our lives, those memories and moments that we would hold onto for the days to come.
All Saints became one of my favorite services, full of remembrance and wonder, thanksgiving and grief, shared tears and shared laughter.
Then, my father died last November. We had three weeks between the diagnosis that finally told us what had been happening to him over the past year and his funeral. Those three weeks were priceless and holy and rich–and not nearly long enough. 74 years was not nearly long enough for my father’s light to shine.
(Note: God knows how I feel about this. And God’s OK with it, according to the Biblical witness of the Psalms, the lived out faith of those who have gone before, and my own prayers. We’re good.)
Grief has been a constant companion this year, an invisible armband on every outfit I wear, taking up room and energy and attention, some days more than others. Sometimes this grief is a silent companion; other times it jerks me out of another conversation or train of thought and unashamedly takes over the space it needs.
I’ve been dreading the anniversary of Daddy’s death since summer. Last year, we were all still stunned and absolutely raw when Thanksgiving rolled by two days after his funeral. We limped through Christmas, grateful for the children in whom Daddy delighted to keep us distracted enough to function.
This year, the shock won’t be there to cushion the reality of his absence.
This year, we’ll be facing the fact that a whole year has passed since we lost Daddy. The world has been racing on as normal, pulling him farther and farther into memory and the past and pushing us forward into life without him and a future where his stories and guidance and laughter are not present.
And it is that framework that I find I cannot bear.
The Anniversary Syndrome wasn’t just going to dredge up all the pain of the original loss–it was going to tell me that I should be somewhere else with my grief, that life had moved on, that I wasn’t keeping up, that a whole year has passed and that’s a mighty long time. 2016 was about to roll into 2017, making our 2015 loss ancient history in a nanosecond world.
I wasn’t just dreading the resurfacing of the deepest grief of Daddy’s death. I was dreading the reality that a whole year has passed without him in our lives. I was dreading the judgment doled out by way we frame time, the calendar’s unspoken but powerful assessment.
But All Saints Day rescued me.
All Saints Day offers a wondrous counterpoint to the peculiar judgment I was dreading on the anniversary of my father’s death. Time doesn’t matter. At least not the way our world thinks about and measures time. According to Hebrews, that cloud of witnesses we will all join one day binds us together over time and space, death and life, woven by the love of Christ Jesus.
Past, present, future–it’s all God’s time. The cloud of witnesses brings together the earliest followers of God’s call as outlined in Hebrews to those who lived when Hebrews was written to all of us who read Hebrews now to those who have not yet taken their first breaths.
My father is now part of that cloud of witnesses. We are still part of the same grand, cosmic, beyond-human-comprehension story of God. Through the Light the darkness could not overcome, Daddy’s light still shines, in all of us who loved him: in our memories, in the countless kindnesses he offered, in the welcoming space he taught us to create for others, in the childlike curiosity about God’s amazing creation–especially people–that he fostered in us, in the songs he taught us, stories he told . . .
So November looks different for me this year. Never my favorite month, it is now a holy month. Still gray with the loss of an hour of evening light, with the bareness of the trees, with the death of my father.
But now, November is infused with the “substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen.” Things not seen, like the cloud of witnesses that whispers me on, one voice in particular I know by heart.
Alicia Davis Porterfield recently moved to the wilds of West Virginia with her family, where she serves as Associate Pastor for Adult Education at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, Huntington, WV.