The most recent Pixar film, “Coco” tells the story of Miguel, a young Mexican boy who dreams of becoming a musician, but whose family has come to despise musicians, ever since his great-great grandfather left the family behind in search of stardom. The entire story takes place on el Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead - and unfolds as Miguel’s family is preparing the ofrenda, the altar covered in flowers, and foods, and symbols of familiar welcome for the dead ancestors who are being honored, and, according to tradition, who are to be welcomed back among the living this one night of the year. At the center of the ofrenda there are photos of the beloved dead whose memories are being preserved, and whose visitation is being encouraged. Miguel’s grandmother explains, “We've put their photos on the ofrenda so their spirits can cross over. That is very important! If we don't put them up, they can't come!.... We made all this food -- set out the things they loved in life.... We don't want their spirits to get lost. We want them to come....”*
Trying to escape the strictures of his family, who want him to become a shoe-maker rather than a musician, Miguel runs off in search of a guitar, as night falls. And through a series of twists and unexpected turns, the boy finds himself in the Land of the Dead, still very much alive. But he soon realizes that he is in danger of getting trapped forever on the wrong side of the marigold bridge that connects the living to the dead.
The boy discovers that he has only until sunrise to win a blessing from a departed ancestor in order to gain re-entry to the land of the living. And he enlists the help of a dead man named Hector, who himself is unable to cross over to visit with the living on this Day of the Dead. Hector explains to Miguel why his journey from the dead to visit the living is prevented: “this place runs on memories. When you're well-remembered, people put up your photo [on the ofrenda] and you get to cross the bridge and visit the living on Día de Muertos. Unless you're me.... No one's ever put up my picture…”
As the story advances, Miguel discovers that an even worse fate awaits those who are forgotten amongst the living. Hector tells him, “when there's no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from [the Land of the Dead, too. They] call it the ‘Final Death.’” And Hector is in immanent danger of being forgotten altogether.
The fortunes of the living boy and the doomed man become entangled, and they establish an uneasy alliance to help each other cross back over the marigold bridge to the world of the living: the boy to resume his life, and the man to visit his now aged daughter, the only living soul who might remember him, and place his photo on an ofrenda to keep his memory alive.
So far you may have been wondering why I did not preach this sermon back in November, and borrow the details of the vestigial Aztec customs of el Dia de los Muertos by way of reflection on our own commemoration of the dead - saints and sinners alike.
The leitmotif of the film is the power of memory to preserve our familial relationships and to connect us to the past. It’s a theme that is summed up in the recurring song that you will surely be humming when you leave the theater, “Remember me.” Sung both as a rousing production number and as a soothing lullabye the song takes on a variety of meanings:
Though I have to say good-bye,
Don’t let it make you cry.
For even if I’m far away
I hold you in my heart.
I sing a secret song to you
each night we are apart.
Though I have to travel far,
Each time you hear a sad guitar
know that I am with you
the only way that I can be.
Until you’re in my arms again,
This song, written for animated figures to sing in a movie, does, in fact, echo important themes of the Christian religion. But not the themes of All Saints Day or All Souls Day, which coincide with el Dia de los Muertos. No, this song rings out with the echoes of Maundy Thursday, which is the night, por excelencia, of Christian memory, since it is the night when our Lord shares bread and wine with his disciples, by way of imparting to them (and to us) the gift of his immortal living Presence, and then tells them (and us) to “Remember me.”
Do you hear an echo of that last night in the Upper Room in the details of this lovely movie, and in its signature song, as I do? If we do, the movie invites us to consider what would have become of the Christian church without this Eucharistic gift to bring day by day to the ofrenda - to the altar where our hopes and needs meet God’s grace and mercy. What would become of the church without the gift of this living memory of Jesus? It was the gift on which the infant church was nourished, long before there was a Bible to read, or any scriptural tradition at all. Before Paul wrote any of his letters (as attested to in First Corinthians), before the evangelists began to transcribe their notes, there was the tradition of this memory of this night, that was given as more than just a memory. I’m not sure anyone ever sang it, but they should have. They could have borrowed the tune, and even the words from Pixar: “Remember me. Though I have to say goodbye, remember me.”
And there is a sense in which we gather tonight to listen to Jesus sing us a love song. He gathers us at his altar, and it is he who makes the offering that matters, as he gives himself as a sacrifice for the sake of his love for us. Having already washed our feet out of love, he now assures us that his love will endure for ever, as will his communion with his church. And, knowing that it will be hard for us to follow in his Way after he is gone, he gives us the gift of a sacred memory that cannot ever die, with the simple instructions to “Do this, and remember me.” Remember me. Each time you hear these words, know that I am with you the only way that I can be. Until you’re in my arms again, remember me.
On el Dia de los Muertos, I suppose you’d have to say that the Mexicans who set up their ofrendas in anticipation of visits from their dead ancestors are not relying on their memories in the usual, normal way, in order to recall with fondness their family members of old. They bring to that night the expectation of encountering the living presence of their departed loved ones, an expectation they learned from their ancient Aztec forebears. And I suppose I’d have to say that, while I like the movie, I have my doubts (to say the least) about the possibility that the spirits of the dead cross over a marigold bridge to visit us once a year in November.
But tonight, we are not relying on our memories in the usual, normal way, in order to recall with fondness the loving acts of our spiritual ancestor of old. No, we bring to this night (as we do to every Mass on every day of every year) the expectation of encountering the living Presence of Jesus. The profound difference being that Jesus is not dead. He was dead for three days, if you count days according Jewish custom, and if you allow for the fact that he died late on the first day, and rose early on the third day. And so the living memory of Jesus is a different kind of memory altogether, than the feeble kinds of memories that we so easily lose.
The great challenge for Miguel (in the film), is that he must return before sunrise in order to reclaim the life that is his. And his dead ancestors can do nothing for him but send him back whence he came. And the best that he can do for Hector, is to bring back a photo of him to the land of the living, and place it on the ofrenda, and hang on to his memory a little while longer. But the Final Death will come for him eventually, when enough generations have past, and memory fails, and the photo is lost, and the dead “dissolve into dust.”*** Didn’t we remind ourselves at the outset of Lent that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?
The challenge that lies before us is somewhat different, since Christ is alive, and since it is his grace, his power, his life from which all of us are given grace, and power, and life. Tonight our challenge is to hear him sing his love song to us again and again; to hear him tell us to “Remember me,” as he gives us his Body and his Blood; and to take him in our hands, and to know that he is with us in the only way that he can be, until we rest in his arms again.
But for now, to do this, and to remember him, and to know that he is here.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Maundy Thursday 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
*All quotations from “Coco” Screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, produced by Disney Pixar, 2017
**Song by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert J. Lopez, for Walt Disney Music Company, 2017
***“Coco” screenplay, page 61