As I write it's the third day of three days of traditional Christian festival. We began with Halloween, a name derived from “All Hallows' Eve,” which names the eve of All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day is the day when we celebate the intercommunion between the living and the dead, a communion forged in the action of God in Christ for humanity.
On this third day we celebrate All Faithful Departed, or All Souls' Day. Since the 10th Century today, the day after All Saints' Day, is set apart to remember what Lesser Feasts and Fasts calls “that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church.” It's also a day on which we remember family members and friends who have died.
This morning St. Paul's had a Eucharist in the Mary Chapel in which we read the necrology for the last year and had a chance to name loved ones of our own and light candles for them. I lit candles for my father, my mother, my brother, and a friend who died young. Sharon lit candles for her dad and mom, her sister, and a dear friend. Others followed suit. We then celebrated the sacrament of Christ's presence in bread and wine to strengthen us for service to Christ in "unity, constancy, and peace."
The morning's celebration reminded me of the Guardian editorial that appeared Friday, and reflected approvingly on the fact that Halloween, which began as the celebration of the Eve of the Festival of All Saints, is in Britain now disconnected from religious observance and thus belongs to everyone in that society as a way to have fun with fear. Halloween, says the editorial, is now “disorganized and irreligious and all the better for it.”
And yet the editorial recognizes the loss of something in this secularization of Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. The writers refer to “what is gone now, and won't come back,” by which they mean the Christian backdrop for Halloween, which they acknowledge as having been “for centuries...a framework that everyone knew and only the eccentric needed to consciously believe.” The editorial continues:
“With the end of that certainty, and with the loss of All Hallows’ Eve as a religiously celebrated festival, we have lost something profound, too. The slow accretion of meaning and tradition brings something to the observation of Christian solemnities that nothing quite consciously arranged can match, and which commercial Halloween does not even try to....Behind the plastic skulls of today’s Halloween lurks something much more frightening. The lines of comic shambling zombies cannot entirely conceal Auden’s view that we are 'lost in a haunted wood, children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good'.”
I read the editorial with some sympathy to their overall view, although I wonder where the writers ever got the idea that Christian faith was ever for many of us a matter of “certainty.” Well, I suppose they got it from those Christians who trumpet their supposed certainties. I've known and lived among such people, and believe I've seen past the bravado of their supposed certainty to the underlying fear that energizes them. I've never been comfortable as one of that company, just as I wonder how anyone can trumpet the certainties that some brands of atheists trumpet. To me following Jesus is about asking deeper questions, about a growing trust that God is a mystery that is Good.
My sympathy with the editor's view is based on my observation that some people need to declare independence of some forms of Christian cultural attitudes to Halloween. These are people like the Guardian writer Sarah Galo, who grew up in a fundamentalism that banned the celebration of Halloween, and now opines that the banning of Halloween “caused ignorance, and not salvation.”
I'm one of those people. As a youngster, I was denied the pleasures of Christmas and of Halloween, based on the premise that these were somehow linked with pagan practices that made God mad and put us in danger of God's retribution in the form of eternal punishment in hell. To this day, I carry within me an awkwardness when it comes to participating in these celebrations. My father – may he rest in peace – held these views, and so our household went along with them. At my age, I don't hold it against him. He was trying to be faithful, and I wish he were still around to talk with about such things.
At the root of this negativity to Halloween was fear; fear that God – like us – was obsessed with retribution. This portrayal of God is particularly strong in American fundamentalism and far from dead, as another recent Guardian story about a “Hell House” in Texas demonstrates. I read this story with feelings of disgust and horror and then sadness in the realization that there are people who in the name of Christ put time and effort into producing these execrable horrors. I find the whole thing nauseating. It's spiritual abuse, and is destined to create many ex-Christians; the walking wounded. If this is taken to be Christianity, then Christianity is of no benefit to anyone. Ugh!
But unlike the Guardian editorial writers who have dismissed Christianity as certainties taken seriously only by the eccentric, I remain a Christian, and I find in the celebration of All Saints' and All Souls' reminders of deep mysteries that cannot be plumbed by merely putting on the masks and strange outfits of Halloween. I wish I were a little more comfortable with that kind of merry-making than I am, but nobody's perfect. That kind of merry-making has to begin early in life to really become part of you.
Those editorial writers are on to something when they lament the loss of something deep with the loss of the connection of the celebration of Halloween with Christianity.
In my view, this is because Christianity is not about “certainties” at all, as some count certainties. Christianity is about diving into mystery. It's about diving into the mystery presented by the Gospels, who tell us of a man who was rooted in Israel's God and showed us deep things of the nature of this God. Jesus showed us a God who is fathomless love, who is suffering-with-humanity love. Jesus showed us the God referenced in the collect for the feast of All Faithful Departed, in which we are led to ask that we might receive “the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son” to the end that we be “manifested as [God's] children.” First among those benefits is the forgiveness of sins, the key that unlocks the future for a world in which the future depends on the ability of human beings to practice forgiveness and seek reconciliation, all of which is necessary if we are to have the future that God intended.
I'm happy now to be part of a Christian community that can offer what we offered last Saturday: a “Fall Festival” open to all neighbors and community members at which children and their adults-in-tow could enjoy costumes and games and general merriment, sans religious proselytizing activities. We saw scads of children and their parents and guardians. It was all offered for free, and staffed by church people. To me, it's an expression of generosity made possible by the fact that we do not worship a god of retribution, but the God who in Jesus loves everybody and never coerces people into a relationship.
I hope that some of these people draw nearer and hear of God's love in Jesus, and begin to consciously enjoy some of those “unsearchable benefits” of the passion of Jesus and know themselves as God's children. That starts with us, the members of St. Paul's. I hope we all go after that in a serious way ourselves.