Days of the Dead, Days of the Bread, and Birthdays

Sermon by Rodrigo Emilio Solano-Quesnel, 2 November 2014

Whenever I’ve had a birthday in Mexico, I’ve had the pleasure of waking up in the morning to a chorus of loved ones singing the traditional song Las Mañanitas. The title of this song means quite appropriately “The Little Mornings”, being that it comprises little morning verses that are intended to greet a celebree on their birthday—or on their namesake saint’s day.  I’ve sometimes described it as the Mexican version of Happy Birthday to You, but that’s misleading... Las Mañanitas is an intricate ballad with allegorical descriptions of the creatures of the world rejoicing at the wondrous news of your birth—with flowers blooming for the first time and nightingales singing at a baptismal font!  It’s rich in hyperbolic homage and even biblical allusions, claiming that King David himself sang it.  It is difficult to capture the overwhelming intensity of these lyrics in translation... and without the mariachi trumpet in background, but I am specially endeared to the closing words of the chorus, and my own interpretation of it goes: Wake up, my dear, wake up!  Look how it is morning yet!  How the birds are singing outdoors!  The moon has already set!  That exhortation—wake up, my dear!  Look outside, it’s morning!  With such promise for a day for celebration and joy... what a lovely sentiment to be greeted with on a special day!

Many stanzas have become quite standard, so you usually get at least three sets of verse describing how you’re the most special gift to the world... and if there’s a musician in the family—as tends to happen—you might even be treated to a few rare and original verses, straight from the heart!

After being so spoiled for over a decade, I have to admit that I sometimes find the song Happy Birthday to You a bit... underwhelming.  To be honest, I find the song more fascinating for its complicated copyright history... you might have heard that the lyrics to the song still belong to Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., and if you sing it in public you’re technically supposed to owe them royalties... that’s not an urban legend (though the specifics of the case are actually a bit more complicated).  There’s also supposed to be a loophole, since the tune is older and in the public domain, so if you just hum the melody—or sing different words to it—you can apparently celebrate birthdays free of charge!

Of course, the tune Happy Birthday to You is known in Mexico, and it’s usually parodied with the words, “sapo verde eres tu”, words that translate to “You are a green toad.”  It’s a nice comic relief at the end of a candle blowing ritual after the cake’s been brought in with much ceremony.

I’ve often wondered if there are English-language songs that might express more similar sentiments of overwhelming joy to the news that you were born—and as I’ve found, there are!  A favourite one of mine came to my attention this summer at a Unitarian Universalist young adults retreat.  A fellow lover of music sang it, on a starry night of worship, just before we set out to gaze at the night sky, spotting stars, and on the lookout for apparent shooting stars, courtesy of the Perseides meteors in late August.  It’s a song of dancing, of a God itself, dancing the day you were born (the song God Danced (the Night You Were Born) that Shawn and Genevieve shared with us this morning).

So, maybe it’s a bit much?  I mean, why would an almighty deity care so much whenever one more lowly mortal begins its short-lived existence, around an unremarkable star in some remote part of one its many galaxies?

I don’t know that I can give you the answer.  But one of the answers that works for me is that each day of birth is a celebration that bears witness to that great story of creation we have come to learn, about the Big Bang and the universe that came from an infinitesimally tiny spot, to become the vast space where odd particles become hydrogen, collapsing into the great furnaces of stars, which after a few generations, fuse all the elements that became us!  All of the air, the water, the minerals... time, space—everything!

I’ve heard the story told many times, by mystics such as Carl Sagan, and our own Rev. Carole Martignacco in her storybook The Everything Seed.  In a more recent retelling I’ve seen, by the German video creator Kurzgesagt (on YouTube), I heard a neat insight: that as the stardust that is part of the universe, we are indeed the universe’s way of experiencing itself.  And the miracle happens every day, every morning, when you wake up!  When you look out, or hear the birds singing, blowing out candles, or sharing some bread.  If mindfulness is there, if a holy spirit is there, then we are witness to the beauty of communing with the universe that makes us and of which we make a part.

Now, neither astrophysicists nor theologians can agree on exactly how and when this universe of ours will end.  Some suggested endings can be a bit depressing.  Others, are... less depressing.  And on the upside, none of us is likely to be around to see any of the possible scenarios happen!
So it is that on days like this, we set some time aside to contemplate, mourn, and celebrate, that slice of existence that has become our privilege, to honour its marvelous origins, and to revive the quest to preserve the dignity of this birthright.

And at times like this, it takes a special determination to keep this celebration and this struggle.

It has been... a weird couple of weeks, at home and abroad, with heartbreaking and heartwarming stories flooding our radars seemingly every day.  Diverse conflicts in the Middle East feel harder to untangle than ever, different countries in West Africa have been struggling with a new wave of epidemic disease and political unrest, and division on how to address those dangers has spilled into North America.  We may have heard of violent disappearances in Mexico two Wednesdays ago, of people who are fighting for the dignity of their birthrights.  On that same day in Canada, two Wednesdays ago, we felt a similar shaken faith in the stability of our own democratic institutions.
 
And this week, many among us are heartbroken... some, perhaps mourning the loss of what felt like the voice of an intimate stranger on the airwaves, or perhaps standing in solidarity with all who face the struggle of public self-disclosure,  seeking to understand the special type of courage it takes to speak up about past life trauma.  Many among us may be waking to the painful realities that many women face in our country and around the world, every day.  We may share the heartbreak of people of all genders who gather the courage to speak of a past sexual assault, or the courage needed to live with that past in silence, for many years... maybe forever.

And for many of us, these challenges come alongside all the pain and struggles of our own lives, who remember cherished memories, of our dearest losses.  Many of you gave voice to them this morning; many of us hold them close to our hearts.

It is in moments like these that we can find inspiration in that shared vulnerability of our collective grief and our common mortality.  Wondering about our lives beyond ourselves—how we came to share this life with others and what it will be like when our life on earth is no longer recognized by others.  It can be a transcendental questioning, to gaze back at our communities’ histories, our global history, the stories of our creation, and wonder about how things will be when we are no longer around, except in spirit, with memories of words, deeds, and a faithful commitment to live a life worth dying for, or even seek a life worth living in.

It has been part of our shared heritage that communion may be both a commemoration of death and a celebration of renewed life.  And I have found that we come across these shared rituals of renewal and of living surprisingly often, if mindfulness is there.

Last Monday, in Toronto, my partner and I were part of a record-breaking 64% voter turnout—for a municipal election.  (For the first time in a long while, it was far more likely to have cast a ballot than the other way around!)  Taking part in one of the many ways that we may practice our 5th principle, of celebrating our right of conscience and using the democratic process in our communities.

And judging from your posts on our collective newsfeeds, I see that many of you have also been exercising your right of conscience!  We have seen people boldly sharing about painful pasts and defending those who prefer not to do so.  We have heard of people spreading the word, not to give in to fear, be it of disease contagion or violence by others.

Some of you have simply chosen to share the stories of those who would tell them, to those who might not have been able to hear them.

I find courage in these news and these actions; these stories of inspiration that help me face the day in the morning; moments of clarity that I call worshipful.

Those times of renewal can be rare or frequent.  It may be once a year, as determined by biology; or a couple times per year, as prescribed in a bylaw [Article V], or weekly, as religious tradition has determined to some; or just about every single time we have the mind to appreciate the universe that fits into a slice of bread, shared by a slice of life, with others who are collective witnesses to the shared experience of a new day, whenever there is a chance to wake up, my dear, wake up and sing.

So may we eat,
So may we wake,
So may we sing,
And so may we live
    as our mutual blessing to each other.

Amen

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