Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Good Company: Sermon for Halloween/ All Saints

Just over two weeks ago, on a blustery October night, six youth and three adults from St. Sociable found themselves wandering through wooded paths encountering ghosts, chainsaw-wielding madmen, extraordinarily creepy clowns, and other things that went “bump” in that rainy night. We were at “Scary Zoo Night,” and I can assure you, there was much, much screaming as well as much laughter. At one bend in the road we found ourselves face to face with a fortune-teller, and it didn’t take long before the youngest among us noticed that the woman in the turban said virtually the same thing to each person whose palm she read: we all had undergone, or were about to undergo, “change.” Beside her, on the floor, sat an enormous stuffed bull’s head, which, we were informed, was all that remains of her husband “Bruce.” I can only assume Bruce underwent a change as well.

Halloween is all around us—it has been for many weeks—and I have to confess, it’s a holiday I’ve loved ever since I was a little child and my mother dressed me as a drum majorette and told me I could have lots of candy, all at once. There is something about giving ourselves over, both to fantasy and to the opportunity to become just a little scared, that can make for a truly exciting experience. All in a completely safe environment, of course. Halloween is celebrated primarily in the US, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and there’s a very good reason for that. The roots of Halloween are found of the Celtic celebration of Samhain.

Samhain is a festival marking the end of the harvest—it has been described as one of the two great “doorways” of the Celtic year. The Celts have traditionally recognized two seasons: the season of light and the season of darkness. Samhain, celebrated on October 31st, is a transition between those two seasons. In Celtic spirituality, it is believed that these turning points—from light to dark and back again in the spring—mark a time when the barriers between this world and the next become thin. All around us we see that things are dying—food crops and flowers and the leaves on the trees and even animals. From ancient times, the Celts have believed that this thin time is a time when those in the next world could reach back and reappear in this one.

The ancient Celts marked this time in a number of ways that will be familiar to us. They burnt bonfires, a custom that is still strong in the Irish and Scots countryside. They wore masks and costumes to imitate or sometimes placate the dead who might decide to reappear. And they hollowed out large turnips, and carved faces in them, and used them as lanterns.

Samhain marked another turning point as well. It marked the turning from the outdoors to the indoors, when the vast expanse of green fields was replaced by the dim and smoky room, and the song of birds and insects was replaced by the conversation of friends and family around the hearth. [1] It wasn’t all fear and mischief; it was a time when communities gathered closer together.

As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic world, many of the customs of Samhain were adapted into the new Christian context. 16th century Scotland introduced the name “All-Hallows-Even” to the festival, connecting it to the Christian feast of All Saints, which took place the next day, November 1.

Why talk about Halloween and its Celtic roots in a sermon ostensibly recognizing the Christian celebration of All Saints? First, I should probably say a bit about the difference between the Protestant understanding of “All Saints” and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic understanding. The Roman and Orthodox Catholic understanding saints in this way: saints are those who have lived (and died) in exemplary ways, and one is only named a saint after lengthy consultation, trials, and miraculous confirmation. The Protestant understanding is different. We understand “saints” to be the community of all believers—past, present and future.

And so I ask again: Why talk about Halloween and its Celtic roots in a sermon allegedly recognizing the Christian celebration of All Saints? For me the common root, oddly enough, is in fear.

When I was a child and it grew dark on Halloween night, I was filled with a sweet excitement that had just a little to do with fear. Would I see a ghost? Would it be a friendly one? Or would it make my hair stand on end with fright? On Halloween I think we deliberately evoke a sense of fear in ourselves. Why is that? Is it an entirely sensory, visceral experience we’re after? Is it the same thing that drives us to get on roller coasters that spin us upside down and make us dizzy? Or is there something more to it?

The thing we “fear” on Halloween, if anything, is that otherworldly connection, the thinness between this world and the next that we are warned of from ancient times. What if we do see a ghost? What would that mean?

Writer Kathleen Norris talks about her experience of joining a Presbyterian church in her little North Dakota town. She recalls the morning she walked into church to become a member of that particular outpost of the church universal:

It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day that I joined the church, and I found that the sub-zero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to church, into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake… I still felt like an outsider in the church, and wondered if I always would…

Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. I’ll call him Ed. He’d always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small-mindedness that can make small-town life such a trial. The minister had asked him to formally greet the new members. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, “I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.” The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine—neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert, attuned to further disruptions in the atmosphere. What had I gotten myself into? I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.

I don’t think it’s any accident that on the day before we celebrate All Saints—that day on which we recognize that we are one in the body of Christ—popular culture engages in an exercise of fear. Just for fun, mind you—because none of us really expects to be confronted with the ghost of Great Aunt Lucy looking for that naughty child she remembers. We engage in a playful re-creation of fear, but not because we’re afraid of the ghosts and goblins that might be hiding under our beds. We engage with fear because other people are scary. Their emotions, and their needs, and their differences from us, and their ways of being in the world. If people are unfamiliar to us, if they are new, and different, and just a tiny bit outside our own personal mold—we leave our comfort zones and step into a new world at the moment when we are commanded, not to like, but certainly, to love all those whom Christ puts in our path.

And Christ puts everyone into our path, and commands us to love them. All those poor, hungry, weeping, hated people from our reading in Luke—all those who are most assuredly a part of this great communion of saints, because didn’t Jesus just say so? And we, by virtue of our membership that same communion, are under orders to love. Maybe you don’t find that scary. I do. I doubt my ability to do it. I question my moral courage to really love people who are unlike me. I stand with my knees shaking at the very thought of it. Maybe you do, too.

If so, we’re in good company. Some of the people we think of as showing the greatest, most astonishing levels of love in their service of humanity were clear-eyed realists regarding how very difficult that mandate can be. Mother Teresa of Calcutta revealed just how trying she sometimes found it when she spoke of “loving until it hurts.” But she found the way through that difficulty too. “I have found the paradox,” she said, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only love.”

In our celebration of the feast of All Saints we are called to recognize the unsettling, even scary reality of our connection to one another, our utter interdependence. As I heard a wise man say recently, we can’t get away from one another. And we can look at that and tremble, even as we recognize that now, the world seems larger, opened in a new way. The command to love our enemies takes on a different light when we begin to understand that our enemy is part of the same body that we are, that we depend on one another, that we are swimming in the same pool.

Tonight many of us will welcome little zombies and werewolves and vampires—as well as princesses and Lady Gaga’s and even (God help us) Snooki’s as they wander the streets in search of treats. If we look closely, they will all be there—the characters we admire as well as the ones we revile and, indeed, the ones who leave us completely and utterly stumped (which is my position on Snooki). They will all be there—the vast array of humanity, perhaps in cartoonish exaggeration. But a nice reminder, if we will be reminded, that people as well as trick-or-treaters come in more varieties than we can imagine, and we, by virtue of our status as saints of God, are commanded to love them all. Scary, perhaps. But thrilling, in a way that opens the world up, makes it larger. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mara Freeman, “The Celtic Year: Samhain,” at, 1999.
[2] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 141-142.

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