As a researcher and teacher of ritual studies, I am fascinated by the ways we commemorate, or mark, important passages and happenings. Symbols that relate a story, a memory, or an idea remind us that the things represented by the symbols live on with us and continue to inspire and empower us. All Saints’ Day is a particular moment in the church year when we mark the passage of time and celebrate the lives of our loved ones. Of course, we become acutely aware that there are many different kinds of symbols and sources for significance. In this article, we’re going to explore a few different varieties of symbols in preparation for All Saints’ Day and the many possible interpretations for All Saints’ ritual action.
I once spent time gathering with the clergy and some of the worship personnel of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church. At the end of the event, I realized I had time to go see the National Memorial in downtown Oklahoma City. So I nonchalantly asked one of the hosting pastors about getting down there. She said, “I’d love to take you because… well… [long pause]… my father was killed in that attack.” Gulp. What I thought was going to be a trip to satisfy my “fascination” with symbolic sites turned into an experience of a much more personal and powerful witness to the devastation of senseless violence.
The experience of visiting the National Memorial was a reminder of the power of symbol and the power of the visual or sculptural arts to express what words often cannot. Empty chairs lit from underneath represent each of the victims killed in the blast. The chairs are placed in rows that for each floor of the building. Smaller chairs represent children, of which there were many. Water forms a reflecting pool spanning the length of the building where a lit “9:01” and “9:03” on walls at each end stand like sentinels declaring the time “before” and “after,” marking those couple of minutes that changed lives forever. A survivor tree that withstood the blast has had its saplings nurtured into gifts of life and hope for those whose lives were affected. The fence outside the memorial that was filled to overflowing with messages and mementos in the months afterwards still has to be cleaned off and archived at least every 60 days, the Head of Archives and Education told me.
So many things about this site are instructive for our own rituals of remembrance. How could you use these symbolic ideas or other interpretations powerfully in worship?
Object of significance: An empty chair evokes so much in such a simple way. Water carries messages of soothing, calming qualities but also links to our eternal life in Jesus Christ through baptism. Tree and sapling images carry wonderful life/death/rebirth images.
Place of significance: A bow or flower on the pew spot that someone occupied that is no longer with us can be evocative. Mementos like the ones sitting in the picture boxes of all the victims in Oklahoma (a personal Bible, a favorite toy, a trophy or medal) hold so much memory and connection, even for those who didn’t know the deceased.
Time of significance: The timing of All Saints happens just as we are about to roll into a season of holidays that can be difficult for folks who have lost loved ones. Perhaps making a special effort to contact these folks and invite them to be there and is an effort well-worth making.
Message of significance: The entrance to the National Memorial contains the mission statement of the site. “May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.” What is your church’s mission concerning addressing violence in your community, your world? Whether or not the people you remember from your community were victims of violence, we are called in our worship to remember beyond the boundaries of our own walls and decry injustice in all forms.
As you make preparations to remember the loved ones in your congregations, consider the power of symbol, and keep your eyes open to see the connections.