[Reading: Marge Piercy’s Kaddish. Preached during a power outage, in the dark and cold at East Barnard Church.]
We are so little, friends. And the night is so huge. I told myself I’d skip the darkness talk this year, but in light of the power outages over the last 24 hours, not to mention the outages in California, it felt inescapable to me.
Night and darkness are, like death, inescapable. There is no way around them, only through. One of our greatest callings as people of faith is to make peace with darkness and death, because as long as we don’t, we remain vulnerable to the lies the world tells us: that if we can take and hoard enough wealth, power, status, we’ll insulate ourselves from weakness. But we never can. And we’ll only hurt others in the process.
So we go through. We go into the dark, we sit down with death, and we confront how they make us feel. We sit down with our weakness and our mortality, with the fact that one day we will no longer exist on this plane. We make our peace.
In the Jewish tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish is what you pray during the bereavement period, and the prayer you recite on every anniversary of a loved one’s death. It’s not about death—it’s actually a prayer of praise to God—an affirmation of God’s goodness even in the midst of pain and loss—punctuated by the phrase v’imru amein, or as Marge Piercy puts it, “Let’s say amein.” It’s part of every prayer service, and in many synagogues the entire congregation stands and prays it together in solidarity with the grieving person. So a life of Jewish prayer is a life marked and punctuated by the Kaddish. You say it now for those you love, and one day, other loved ones will say it for you. The Kaddish is one of those central traditions that carry people along, and as much as I want to think of a Christian parallel to it, I can’t. Which makes me sad, because I can’t think of a more affirming way to make peace with death, to accept loss, while also affirming the place of life. An old bit of Christian liturgy says that, “In the midst of life we are in death,” but it’s just as true to say that in the midst of death we are in life. The Kaddish emphasizes that intertwining of grief and praise, of death and life, of sorrow and hope.
As Christians we are not connected by the Kaddish. And yet we are connected to each other by the threads of actions, hopes, prayers. These threads don’t disappear when someone dies, which is part of what makes loss so painful. But eventually we also find joy in them, as we find continuity in them, as we realize they still connect us to people we grieve.
What are the traditions, habits, or objects that connect you to the dead? Is it a quilt, a photo, a recipe, a Christmas tradition? My great-grandmother’s oatmeal date cookies connect me not only to her, a woman I never met but whose genes I share, but also to my mother who made them religiously for a friend, and to that friend, who is chosen family. There will never be a time I make those cookies but don’t think of those others.
Whatever our religious tradition, whatever our family and community traditions, we stand in a great web of being joined together. The threads of this web are unseen, but among the most powerful force in our universe. They cause us pain, but also bring us comfort.
Each one of us in this room tonight, everyone in the houses you pass when you leave this place, is a moment in time, a place of joining in the great web. We are recipients of unimaginable love and care and hope, and each of us pass on that love and care and hope to generations yet unborn, regardless of whether they share our blood. The actions we take today, the habits we cultivate, the traditions we nourish and pass on, they will resound even when not one of us here tonight is left to draw breath.
This may strike some as morbid, but for me, and I think for people of faith in general, it’s a source of immense hope. Our lives are never wasted, the love we share with those now gone is never wasted. It continues to resound in us and through us. It’s all part of that web of being, it shimmers along the threads of that web.
So, in a few minutes, I will invite you to light candles and share names of those you remember tonight. And if you feel comfortable, I invite you also to share something that links you to that person beyond death. How does their life continue to resound in yours?
And I want us to pause and consider our continuity with the saints who built and founded this church, those who repaired its building and renewed its community over the years—almost two centuries now!—and all of you who support this church in the giving of your time, gifts, prayers, labor, money, everything! You are valued, and a contributor to the tradition that is East Barnard Church. Thank you.