All Souls Day ensures that at an official level we recall at least once a year those who have died, especially our family members. We pray for our dead and ask God to grant them the joy and peace of eternal life.
In the Cook Islands, Turama is an expression of the Christian theology of belief in eternal life. I note it was the theme taken up by the CICC of Arorangi in their Nuku presentation on the “Prophesy about the Resurrection of the Dead”.
That recalling our dead in the likes of a Nuku presentation on the National Gospel day or at a Turama ceremony when graves are blessed, can be a joyful celebration arising from our Christian belief that by Christ’s death and resurrection, he has opened heaven to us. There in heaven, the life of the blessed consists in full and perfect possession of the saving act of Christ.
It has become the custom in the Catholic Church in the Cook Islands to anticipate this day by a festival of light on the eve of all Souls Day, that is, on the evening of November 1, which you would have seen celebrated two nights ago.
The meaning of Christian death.
Christians believe in the Resurrection of the Dead. We believe in the resurrection of the dead because Christ rose from the dead, lives forever, and causes us to share in this eternal life.
“How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing useless”. (1 Cor. 15: 13 - 14.
When someone dies, his or her body is buried or cremated. Nevertheless, we believe that there is a life after death for that person. In his Resurrection, Jesus showed that he is Lord over death; his word is trustworthy. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he or she dies, yet shall they live.” John 11:25.
Why do we believe in the resurrection of the Body? In Jesus Christ, God himself took on “flesh” in order to redeem mankind. The biblical word “flesh” characterises man in his weakness and mortality. However, God does not regard human flesh as something inferior. God does not redeem man’s spirit only; he redeems him entirely, body and soul.
God created us with a body (flesh) and a soul (spirit). At the end of the world he does not drop the flesh like an old toy. On the last day he will remake all creation and raise up the flesh – this means that we will be transformed, but still experience ourselves in our element. For Jesus, too being in the flesh was just a phase. When the risen Lord showed himself, the disciples saw the wounds on his body. John 20:27
What happens when we die?
In death, body and soul are separated. The body decays, while the soul goes to meet God, and waits to be reunited with its risen body on the last day.
“But someone will ask, ‘How are dead people raised, and what sort of body do they have when they come back?’ They are stupid questions. Whatever you sow in the ground has to die before it is given new life and the things you sow is not what is going to come; you sow a bare grain, say of wheat or something like that, and then God gives it the sort of body that he has chosen: each sort of seed gets its own sort of body.” 1 Cor:15: 35 – 38 (1Cor. 15: 35 – 37).
How the resurrection will take place is a mystery. An image can help us accept it: When we look at a tulip bulb we cannot tell into what a marvelously beautiful flower it will develop in the dark earth. Similarly, we know nothing about the future appearance of our new body. Paul is certain “what is sown is contemptible, but what is raised is glorious.” (1 Cor. 15: 43.)
The Resurrection of Lazarus.
Perhaps the best model we can learn from regarding this question of death is by listening to Martha, one of the women of the Gospel. Martha had a discussion with Jesus on the Resurrection at the time of the death of Lazarus. In John 11;24, Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
Jesus is saying here that resurrection and life are available now, because he is the resurrection. We all share that belief, but Martha still has not fully understood Jesus’ promise of life.
Martha struggles to understand that Jesus’ promises outstrip our dreams. As we look back over the story of our loved ones, the ones whose life, love and death have given us our own life and possibilities, we are asked to recognise that there is no human hope that can totally satisfy us. Martha accepts Jesus from within her own Jewish religion and culture. She tries to fit him into her way of seeing things. We all do the same. Death is the most wonderful sign to all that such an approach to Jesus falls short of the mark. He has more to offer us than our hopes. He asks us to believe in him so that we may have life, both now and forever.
In Cook Island culture, ancestors are honoured. Sometimes when we hear genealogies being proclaimed we realise it is a treasure to be able to recall the family dead. So as families gather around their graves, the children can be told about their ancestors and some of the stories that are associated with these family members. Turama is a family celebration where the living recall their deceased loved ones. It enables us to get in touch with our family roots and its history and to keep it alive in the family.
I conclude with a quote from Pope Francis regarding remembering our dead:
“I would like to quote another Beatitude, which isn’t found in the Gospel, but at the end of the Bible, and it talks about the end of life: And I heard a voice from heaven telling me to write, ‘Blessed are the dead - those who die in the Lord from this moment on. Yes, says the Spirit, - they will rest from their labours, for their deeds will follow them’. (Revelation 14:13) We are called to accompany our dead with prayer, so that they will rejoice forever in the Lord. We remember our dear ones with gratitude and we pray for them.”
Bishop Paul Donoghue