Todos Los Santos: Theology from a Bunch of Dead People

 

You do not have to join the November 1 madness to remember and honor your dead beloved ones.

Camping out on All Saints' Day
Camping out on All Saints’ Day (click image to enlarge)

Every year on November 1, Todos Los Santos (“All Saints’ Day”), millions of Filipinos gather at the cemeteries to honor their dead beloved family and friends. Many actually go to the cemeteries the night before and camp out next to the graves. So the night is spent on singing karaoke, playing cards, drinking, and even dancing! Next to Christmas and Good Friday, Todos Los Santos is the biggest holiday of all. How did this event come to the Filipino culture? OMF International traces it back to pre-Spanish times, when indigenous natives believed in a sky god who is also the creator god. But they also practiced animism:

The ancient beliefs also included animism. Spirits were thought to dwell in all objects, particularly natural features such as trees, rocks, water or weather conditions. Offerings were made to these spirits, and places where malign spirits were believed to dwell were avoided. Animals were also believed to house spirits and humans were believed to have kindred animal spirits. Thus some animals were considered sacred or symbolic. 1

When the Spanish colonialists arrived in the early 1500s, Roman Catholic missionaries came along to “Christianize” the natives. To be acceptable to the ancient Filipino religions,

[They] allowed existing Filipino culture to coexist with Christian belief and church teachings. This understanding produced the Folk Catholicism which prevails in the Philippines. That is, the coexistence of animism and Catholicism. Filipinos believing in this do not usually perceive inconsistencies between the two.

All of these superstitious folk beliefs are still engraved in the Filipino mindset:

All Saints' Day in Cebu
All Saints’ Day in Cebu (click image to enlarge)

The mix of Folk Catholicism is evident in daily Filipino life. In Catholic areas, the local spirits of animistic belief have been largely replaced with local patron saints. A crucifix or cross is believed to ward off evil spirits in the same way as an amulet. In buses and taxis there is often a statue of Mary or the baby Jesus, believed to protect those who travel… Shrines are visited, particularly around the times of Christian festivals, such as Easter. Some shrines are ostensibly Christian but built on sites of pagan shrines and still used for animistic or psychic purposes.

It is also common to attend church (usually mass) regularly or hold Christian beliefs but also to follow animistic practices. Some people visit a spirit doctor if they are ill or have a problem with another person. They might make sacrifices or offerings to spirits for appeasement or when asking for good health or good crops. This would include people in rural and urban areas, the well educated and the uneducated. Tribal animistic practices range from low-key rituals (performed by some Christians as well as non-Christians) such as burning something bad-smelling when ill, in order to ward off evil spirits, to the possession of a familiar spirit and sacrifices to appease it.

When All Saints’ Day was introduced by the Spanish to the Filipinos, the tradition of spending hours in the cemeteries became closely connected with “ancestor veneration,” coupled with the fear of their dead ancestors. Though most people would deny this, their practices and beliefs prove it:

Ancestor veneration is practiced in some areas and on All Souls Day (October 31) many people, including those with Christian beliefs, visit graveyards to tend the graves of deceased relatives and offer food. These activities have grown out of ancient beliefs about death, the afterlife and the spirits of ancestors. The spirits of the dead were appeased in order to prevent them from harming the living or taking the living with them to the realm of the dead. Death was feared because of the spirits. Many animistic tribal communities still believe in ancestral spirits and base their lives around appeasement or avoidance. In other areas the fear of death has been absorbed into Catholicism.

This is the reason why the Catholic teaching about veneration of dead Saints, praying to these Saints, and purgatory are so readily acceptable to the culture. Evangelicals as well carry this superstitious baggage with them, even when the Bible condemns these practices as abominations. The closest thing to “ancestor veneration” in Scripture is the exhortation to remember, honor and imitate the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11.

I have five suggestions for Filipinos to consider during this Todos Los Santos:

Pardoning of the Penitent Thief by James Tissot, 19th century (click to enlarge)
Pardoning of the Penitent Thief by James Tissot, 19th century (click to enlarge)

First, you do not have to join the November 1 madness to remember and honor your dead beloved ones. I assume that in many other countries, there is also a day to remember the dead, a “memorial day,” but nothing close to what Filipinos do on November 1. You have birthday celebrations, so why not remember them on their birthday anniversaries? You can gather with your families on this occasion by the graveside, and spend some time alone solemnly, respectfully and joyfully celebrating their life. If you prefer to do this on their death anniversaries, well and good. But we usually remember their birthdays better than their death days. And wouldn’t it be a more joyous occasion to celebrate their lives on their birthday anniversaries?

Second, why practice special days—the 9th day and the 40th day—after the death of your loved ones? What are these for? I’ve always wondered about the significance of the numbers 9 and 40. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us what happens to the dead after 9 days, or after 40 days, or the relationship of these numbers to the dead. These are not magical numbers, and they have absolutely no significance for Christians in relation to death.

Third, why fear the dead? No one has ever come back from the dead, except some special people in the Bible. Those who were resurrected from the dead, such as Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, presumably died again, because nothing was said of them, whether they are still alive or if they ascended into heaven. Did these people ever tell stories about their experiences in heaven? No, because those things are reserved for the end of all things when Jesus returns from heaven. Do not fear the dead, for they can’t do anything to you, and you can’t do anything for them, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27).

Fourth, why fear evil spirits? The Bible attests to the fact that Satan and his demons are for real. But you should not be looking for evil spirits everywhere and in everything. This is the stuff of Pentecostals and paganism alike. Superstition and the obsession about evil spirits are the wellspring of these beliefs. Some people are possessed by the spirits of murder, drug addiction, sexual immorality, stealing, lying, corruption, and all kinds of wickedness. But those who are united to Christ are indwelt by the Spirit of Holiness, and there is no room for a spirit of wickedness to dwell in a Christian. Believe in Christ alone as your Savior and Lord, and you will never have to fear evil spirits again.

Fifth, why fear death? The Bible says that Christ conquered death when he rose from the dead: he “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). When Jesus returns, he promises, “death shall be no more” (Rev 21:4). So we are to be thankful to God and Christ for the victory that he has given us over sin and death, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor 15:57). This is only possible if you believe in Christ alone who shed his blood on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and to give you eternal life, now and for eternity.

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