Birthdays are the most usual form of anniversary we first learn to celebrate as a child. Our friends and family gather, shower us with gifts, attention and singing. We complete a revolution around the sun, and our culture has taught us to mark that day as both a beginning and an end. We pause to experience the joy and sorrow of this ever-changing reality.
Among the many types of anniversary celebrations, the ones that revolve around death and dying seem to be the most intense and complicated.
Every Dec. 18, my fourth grade self re-emerges as I remember the sinking news of my grandmother dying. I felt unsettled, untethered. I had no words as I watched my dad cry at the end of her bed, not knowing I was a witness to his pain. I fought my mom with clenched fists when she told me I couldn’t go to the Philippines to help bury my Lola (Tagalog for “grandmother”) because I had to be in school. I sat disgusted and unimpressed at my desk and defied my teacher’s rules to ask for permission before I used the bathroom.
Dec. 18 marks a moment in time where I pause, take stock of my life and how my priorities align with others in the world. And now, 30 revolutions around the sun later, I have grown in awareness of just how much of an impact my Lola’s life and death have marked my own story, my own life.
That first experience of tragedy comes around each time I arrive at another experience of life, death and resurrection.
Aug. 29, 2015, is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans and the Gulf South. I had first arrived to the neighboring city of Metairie, La., just 6 weeks after Katrina had made landfall in Slidell, La. Along with a group of students and staff from Marquette University, we worked to clear debris for parishioners of St. Jerome Catholic Church, one of five parishes the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans designated to serve as community centers that provided food, supplies, and resources.
This year’s anniversary gives me a chance to look back at life’s desperate fight to emerge from death and destruction. My priorities rise again from the ashes of daily living. Witnessing to the experience of the least of these continues to be the invitation I respond to as I remember the conversation, projects, and imaginings I participated in for the first 60 months of recovery, reconstruction, and rebuilding in post-Katrina New Orleans.
I am becoming a witness to many other anniversaries whose meanings have yet to be fully uncovered. The following is a litany of world anniversaries that connect with my experience that may ALSO connect with yours:
- 20,000 military killed, up to 146,000 civilians killed when the first atomic bomb destroyed five square miles of the city.
Aug. 9 -- 70th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki
- Up to 80,000 civilians killed after previous target was unreachable.
- Nuclear bombings to bring World War II to an end. Gave birth to a people a military restriction in Japan that is now being altered.
Aug. 9 -- First anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
- Civil unrest that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement and additional federal oversight for policing in urban communities. Violence continues.
Aug. 15 -- Feast Day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Archbishop Oscar Romero’s birthday, my dad’s birthday
- Romero was born in 1917, my father was born in 1938, and the Assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith was declared in 1950. As my father jokes, “as Mary was being assumed into heaven, I was being born into the world to continue her ministry of faithful parenthood.”
I bring these events to the forefront of my consciousness and realize:
Japanese lives matter. Black lives matter. Salvadoran lives matter. Military lives matter. Civilian lives matter. Poor lives matter. All lives matter.
I want to honor each marker as its own significant dent in the armor of human dignity and common good. I try to resist the blanket generalizations of many that “all lives matter” without coming to appreciate that there are always some lives who inadvertently do not seem to matter as much. So we must have a preference for the least of these and actively seek out pathways for their inclusion, freedom and joy.
My heart is heavy this month as my anticipation for a more just world falls into the darkness of these memories and celebrations of sorrow and strife. I sit contemplating what it is that God summons out of us as we come to understand the magnitude of our actions and reactions to the growing, changing, developing world in which we reside.
O, Lord, make us an instrument of Your peace …
Feminist theologian, bell hooks, wrote a book titled, Feminist Theory: From Margin to the Center. She invites her readers to consider centralizing the experience of those on the margins. What would our world look like if those on the outskirts were actually in the center of our reality? Or our values? Or our economic and political structures?
It is the challenge of justice to come to an understanding of the layers of pain, hurt and violence our systems of oppression cause us all -- from the center to the margins and vice versa.
Can we try to centralize the experience of the least of these in a way that cares for each person with dignity and love?
Where there is hatred, let me sow love …
Let us mark these anniversaries of life and death, take a moment to allow the opportunity of new life to emerge so that our reaction can be informed by faith and transformed by love.
For it is in dying that we are born to eternal life …
Please join me in praying for a renewed understanding of the mystery of life, death, and resurrection. May we be able to piece together our lives where the constellation of needs and identities creates a new, restored vision for how we can coexist with one another, value our experiences, and live hopeful in such a broken world.
O Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She teaches bioethics, feminist theology, Christian sexuality, and Christian Scriptures at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at contemplativecompanions.org. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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