Monday, 3 November 2014

Halloween- Hallows Eve- All Hallow's Evening- Eve of All Saint's Day



As you know, Halloween was last Friday. We saw children running around in costumes, and it seemed like everywhere you turn you are confronted by skeletons and tombstones. Death, and all that is associated with its mysteriousness, is brought to our minds. We see caricatures of the dead in various forms- vampires, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster, ghosts, and skulls. Along with these ghouls come every creepy and crawly thing that might keep company with such creatures. It is a time when we are confronted with the mystery of death.

However, this season is also playful. The skeletons dance. The monsters are cartoons. The coffins are full of candy, and the tombstones have funny sayings like “Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake; Stepped on the gas instead of the brake”, or “I told you I was sick”, or “He was so brave, he was so cute, too bad he forgot his parachute”. I have come to appreciate the connection between Halloween and the Church's celebration of All Saints Day.

Our modern celebration of Halloween probably has its roots in an old Celtic celebration called Samhain (pronounced 'Sowin') that probably existed before Christianity made its way to the British Isles. It was a time when they thought spirits, strange creatures, and the dead, could more easily cross over into our world. Some think the costumes might have something to do with hiding from these creatures, and some think the candy and treats had something to do with offerings to appease these visitors so they wouldn’t cause mischief. Samhain was likely a festival for the dead. (Much of the details of this festival have been lost in the mists of time)

The connection between that ancient celebration and our festival today might seem a bit mysterious. Today we celebrate the feast of “All Saints”. It is a day we set aside to remember all the saints, known and unknown to the church. The word “saint” is related to the word “Sanctus”, which is Latin for “holy”. So a saint is a “holy one”. Something or someone that is “holy” has been dedicated for God’s purposes and is used by God in this world. The saints are those who have been “hallowed”, or “made holy”. In the old words of the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”, which means “holy is your name”. “Halloween” comes from the phrase “All Hallows Evening” which is the night before “All Hallows Day”- the day we call “All Saints”.

There are a couple ways to think about the saints. In one way, the saints are those who have shown amazing holiness (by reflecting God's holiness into the world). They have done good and amazing things. They have shown incredible character and courage in the face of impossible odds. Their lives have shown the obvious presence of God’s Spirit. They are examples to us of what a close relationship with Jesus looks like. They are an amazingly diverse group of people, who all followed God’s call on their lives in very different ways. Some lived like monks in the desert devoting their lives to prayer. Some, like Thomas Aquinas, dedicated their lives to scholarship and learning. Others, like Mother Theresa, dedicated their lives to serving the poor. The saints are an amazing diversity of characters and callings. The saints are remembered as people who God used in astonishing ways. Sometimes God used them to bring healing and to show miracles. Sometimes they showed superhuman character in the way they loved.

I said there were two ways we use the word “saint”. One way is what I have been describing. The other way we use the word “saint” is the way the Bible most often uses it. In the Bible the word “saint” is equivalent to the word “Christian”. When Paul writes to the Ephesians he begins the letter by saying “… To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). If Paul wrote a letter to us at St. Timothy’s he would likely say something like, “To the saints who are in the parish of St. Timothy’s”. We are saints because through Jesus we are God’s people. We are also becoming saints because of God’s Spirit working inside us transforming us. Paul will also use the word “saint” in this way, so in some of Paul’s letters he says something like this, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). So a “saint” is both what we are and what we are becoming by God’s mercy and grace.

So what is the connection between the saints and people hanging up skeletons in their windows? How I understand Halloween is this. In the ancient Celtic past this was a bit of a fearful time when there were all kinds of creatures and spirits entering into our world and if they weren’t appeased they could do all kinds of nasty things to you. So it was a bit of a fearful time even thought there were elements of harvest celebration. It was a time that focused on death.

As Christians we believe that Jesus, through his death and resurrection ultimately defeated death. Jesus defeated all the creepy crawlies that those ancestors believed crossed over into our world. The victory of Christ ultimately gives us reason to laugh at death. Christ's victory over the powers and principalities of this world gives us reason to laugh at all the ghouls and goblins. Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father who gave them to me is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." The saints are those who heard the voice of God in this life and have followed that voice. They may face opposition. They may even be killed, but the ultimate victory is theirs because of Jesus. These saints have faced the powers of the world, and in the world’s eyes they seem to have lost. As the book of Wisdom says, "In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die; and their departure is taken for misery, and their going from us to be utter destruction; but they are in peace." They have fallen by sickness, by starvation, thirst, and by the various weapons of this world. But, these saints have not lost. They are the ones who have the true victory. Christ has now given them life that cannot be taken away by hunger, thirst, or any weapon. If anyone can make light of death- if anyone can smile at a skeleton- it is the saints of God, which includes you, by God’s grace. And at Halloween we laugh at the plastic monster, we laugh with the saints at the powers and principalities of this world, and ultimately we can laugh even at death itself because of what Jesus has done.


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