We have entered a full and potentially confusing week in the Church’s year.
Today our communities are celebrating Halloween. I find Christians have ambivalent feelings about the day, as observances can range anywhere from innocent costume parties with friends to dark fascination with death and the occult.
In our ministry to children—respecting the different decisions made by parents—we host a quiet, understated celebration called “Light and Life,” in which we do interact with some of the frightening images that children cannot help but be exposed to at this time of year. But we do so remembering and celebrating the fact that Jesus is the Lord of Light and Life. Children are given a candle as they depart, remembering that they carry Christ’s light wherever they go. (This year’s celebration is today on the parish hall stage, 3:30-4:00PM. Some children arrive in costumes; some don’t.)
Halloween hardly seems like a Christian celebration, yet its name is a reference to the celebration of All Saints. We hear the similarity to the familiar word “hallowed” in the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. To be “hallowed” is to be holy, to be set apart. Thus, All Hallows Eve is the eve of the celebration of all God’s holy people: All Saints Day.
Though I did not grow up celebrating All Saints Day, I am becoming increasingly convinced that knowing about and celebrating the lives of the saints is an important part of our Christian formation. It is part of how the Gospel captures our imagination. I’m including here a brief snippet from my recently defended doctoral thesis project, which concerns this topic:
Celebrations of the lives of the saints—that is, those faithful people who the Church celebrates as exemplars of faith and life—is a practice that can broaden one’s social imaginary [that is, the imaginative framework through which we view the world] immensely, providing glimpses of holiness, joy, and virtue. These images live in the Christian’s imagination in parallel to the heroes and heroines of popular films and stories, who too often present a shallow image of greatness achieved by aggression or charm.
Examining celebrity culture, Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor state that “Protestant skepticism regarding ‘religious saints’ may have encouraged the rampant canonization of secular saints instead”–then questioning, “Which is preferable? An array of time-tested saints connected to particular questions and needs? Or a constellation of freshly-minted stars popping up on sitcoms, advertisements, and talk shows?”
[Detweiler and Taylor] suggest that Pope John Paul II’s canonization of more saints than all the other twentieth-century popes combined is a “brilliant, subversive, and enduring response to celebrity culture. We must recognize the value … of mere humans who dare to live Christ-like lives. If not, what values will be provided by our secular saints?”
I’m sure some members of our congregation will be joining the Red Sox victory parade later today. Our region will celebrate the victory because the Sox are “our team.” In a deeper and more abiding way, the Church celebrates the victory of the saints because they are “our people,” members with us of the one Body of Christ.
So, this Sunday morning, November 4, our festivities will include a joyous festal procession (victory parade?), the Litany of Saints, and Baptism, in which we invite a young child into the fellowship of the saints.
In the evening, we take a more solemn tone as we celebrate All Souls Day (technically named “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed”).
We give specific attention to friends and relatives who have died within the past year, commending them to God’s mercy and proclaiming the good news of eternal life. We share Holy Communion, remembering that the sacrament not only celebrates what Christ has done in the past, but also reaches forward in hope to the last day when death will be destroyed and the Lord will prepare a rich feast for all people. If we are united with Christ, we are not truly separated from those faithful people who have gone before us.
In many ways, the Christian celebration of All Souls is our answer to the darker aspects of Halloween. Yes, we deal with themes of death and darkness directly; we acknowledge their reality, and the pain and fear connected with them. We also recognize our ongoing love for those who have departed from us, and our desire to be with them again.
But this desire does not lead us into fascination with death, ghosts, and spirits. Rather, this desire leads us into hope: Hope in the day when death will be swallowed up in life, and into a fellowship of love that is stronger than death.
It will be a joy to celebrate these feasts together.