Spooks and Saints

Spooks & Saints

Hallowe’en.

On the final day of October, Hallowe’en grabbed the spotlight. All Saints Day was forgotten. That is sad. Can we talk about it?

Hallowe’en apparently began as a druid festival in dark antiquity. In the minds of the Celtic populations of Europe, ghosts and goblins wandered about on the last day of October. It was the night when incarnations of pagan deities went about in animal forms and when the spirits of their not-so-departed ancestors made house calls.

Why this night? October 31st was the end of the year in the Celtic calendar. It marked the transition from fall into winter for Northern Europeans. It was a time for lighting bonfires, both to keep warm and to drive away the darkness. It was the night when gifts were given to buy off the tricks of evil spirits. It was a dark season.

Why would the church put up with such a day? Once it had converted the Celtic peoples why would they allow such an event to remain on the calendar? Why not, like the Puritans, ban such events? If this is just an undigested morsel left over from paganism, why not get rid of it? But wait; there may be a good reason for its retention.

It is a dark season this transition to Winter; it is a depressing time. The harvest is now over. There will be no further fruitfulness, no warmth, no long days, just deep cold and dark nights. The leaves of the trees are already fallen. The decay of vegetation is now evident.  Despondency begins to settle in. The harvest time has been incredible busy. But now there comes that slow period where there is time to reflect, to remember, and perhaps to dread the days ahead. In the long darkness it is easy to fear the unknown.

But still the question remains, why did the church retain Hallowe’en? Why not replace it as they did with other pagan celebrations. Why leave this one seemingly untouched? Perhaps because it helped them bring their fears out into the open. On this dark eve they allow their worst fears to be expressed. The demonic, the evil, the malformed, and the bestial were allowed to come out into the open. Even the pumpkins were given teeth, and their innocent children were dressed in scary garb. On this night all pandemonium was allowed symbolic expression. Their worst nightmares were made visible on this night.

There has always been an element of fear that runs through all societies. Even civilized people have their moments of dread about the demonic. It is why gothic horror novels and frightening films that feature Zombies, Dracula and Godzilla have such a high volume of sales. There is still the fear of something malevolent in our world. And those fears lurk at the back of our minds and cause some to live in dread. Perhaps Hallowe’en is a good time to let those monsters out for an evening. Face them. Look them in the face and quit pretending they are not there. Perhaps we should expand the words of James, who said, “Confess your faults to one another” to read, “Confess your fears to one another, that you may be healed.”  However, though Hallowe’en may help us diagnose our fears, it is of very little value in the resolution of them. This is why if we celebrate Hallowe’en at all, we must participate in a second celebration.

All Saints Day

With the arrival of the daylight we hear a truth that is the antidote to the message of the previous evening; for on November 1st we celebrate All Saints Day. John Wesley frequently expressed in his journal that this is a day that he particularly loved, a day he never failed to celebrate in high worship. This is the day when the death and resurrection of the saints is remembered; when the history of the church is brought to mind with its long lineage of great saints. It is the day when the saints who lived and died in faith are brought back to our memories.

The triumph of the saints was celebrated for centuries in the late spring. On the day of Pentecost we celebrated the birthday of the Church Militant. On the Sunday following we gave thanks for the Church Triumphant. But in A.D. 835 All Saints Day was moved to the 1st of November. It served as the perfect counterpart to any Hallowe’en reminders.

It was also a duplication of the festivals the church had celebrated six months earlier. In the spring we remembered that dark Good Friday and that bright Easter Sunday. On that weekend we celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then six months later we are reminded again of the darkness that still permeates our world, but then celebrate the bright triumph of those who have lived and died in Christ. We get to reflect upon our death and our resurrection. The sequence is divine!

We say, let evil do its worst! Let every devil arise and every foe advance. But we celebrate a goodness that always triumphs over evil. We celebrate, not the dominion of death, but our victory over death. Instead of remembering witches and warlocks, we now remember angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim and all the inhabitants of heaven. The Church says: Let devils do their worst! They are no match against a godly life! Let our worst fears become incarnate; they do not have a prayer.

On Good Friday it looked like evil had triumphed, and goodness had lost. Easter Sunday declared that to be a fiction. On Hallowe’en it looks like evil has taken over, but that too is illusion. We let it have one evening. But that is simply telling evil that we thumb our nose at it. We hold in derision that which has caused the world so much fear. We may have to put up with Hallowe’en, but on the next day let us even more vigorously celebrate the Day of All Saints!

Think it Through

In Europe, churches are often encircled by a cemetery, and in the floor and walls of the sanctuary can be found the tombs, of those believers who preceded the current worshippers. This means that during the services of worship they are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses.”  In our contemporary-focused culture this is rarely so. The past is easily forgotten as we rush towards the future. What alternatives could we find to keep alive the memory of those on whose shoulders we continue to stand and for whom we should be forever grateful?

Take Action

It has been said, “It is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.”  If you have been cursing the banalities of “Trick and Treat” you may want to practice thanksgiving to God and friends for those whom you “have loved long since and lost awhile.” You may want to sing the hymn written by John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light.

Small Group Leader

There are other great hymns that give focus to All Saints Day. You could use one or more of them as a discussion starter.

  • “For All the Saints” by Wm. W. How.
  • “Servant of God, Well done” by Charles Wesley.
  • “O Where are Kings and Empires Now” by Arthur C. Cox.

Published in Light and Life,  November-December, 2003

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