One of the fascinating things about crossing over into a different culture is thinking through how to live as a Christian in your adopted culture, and how that process sheds new light on living as a Christian in your home culture. As we encounter different cultural customs and celebrations, we have to work to understand what they mean and then, informed by the word of God, determine how we may or may not participate.
Perhaps the process sounds pretty straightforward, and at times it is. Should we take part in the pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint and pray to him for protection? That’s fairly black and white. However, for many of the cultural customs it can be more complicated, especially as they change and evolve over time and take on new meanings. It can become quite the tangle of various influences and different meanings for different people.
As I write this, Mexico is celebrating one of its defining traditions, “Dia de los Muertos” – the Day of the Dead. As you might gather from the name of this celebration it certainly doesn’t sound like something a Christian should be involved in. And you wouldn’t be wrong. A ritual that involves putting out food and candies for the spirits of your deceased loved ones to enjoy on the one night of the year they can return to the physical realm does not jive with the Christian belief about death and resurrection.
With that being said, as outsiders to the culture we don’t want to automatically condemn the whole celebration as anti-Christian. We want to first understand what exactly is being celebrated, the origin of the celebration, and the diversity of meanings it holds for Mexicans. Not only would this help us sort through some of the peripheral issues, (to eat or not to eat the sweet bread traditionally made as part of the celebration), but it also would help us to talk to Mexicans about their own customs in a wise and discerning way.
We certainly are not experts in this and still don’t feel like we have a full grasp on everything going on during Dia de los Muertos. But we continue learning and are trying to think through the best way to be a Christian, that is, an ambassador for the life and truth of Christ, in the midst of a celebration which often is a celebration of death and which is based on a lie.
As mentioned above, Dia de los Muertos, celebrated primarily on November 1 and 2, is a day to remember the lives of loved ones who have passed away. That doesn’t sound problematic in and of itself, but there is more to it. The way in which the deceased are remembered is by setting up altars in one’s home, in public spaces, or in the cemetery. The altars vary in size and detail, but they will include: a picture of the remembered deceased, personal ornaments, the deceased’s favourite foods and drinks, as well as candles and candies.
The purpose of these altars, or ofrendas, is to welcome back the deceased to the land of the living, at least for the night. Now, not every Mexican believes this actually happens; that the spirits of their loved ones really do come back from the dead and spend the night with them. But, that belief is the backdrop to the tradition and as Christians, we certainly have to take that into account.
Furthermore, just because some people have disassociated the celebration from its original meaning, does not mean everyone has. A certain custom may have evolved into something different, something more neutral perhaps, but that does not mean that all the old baggage is dead and gone, and therefore irrelevant.
As foreigners to the Mexican culture, it is not too difficult to opt out of the customs that conflict with our Christian identity. It is easy for us pull our kids out of school the day they are making ofrendas, and we don’t feel the need to spend the night in the local cemetery keeping vigil.
But for a Mexican Christian some of these decisions may be harder. When the customs and traditions of our culture are so familiar it can be challenging to discern what is appropriate for a Christian and what is not. “But that’s just the way we do things here” is the common refrain. Yet, it should not be so for the Christian, whose primary identity is bound up in Christ, not culture or country. And so the work we do as missionaries in trying to understand the culture and see it through the lens of Scripture is the task at hand for all Christians, whether in our home culture or a foreign culture.