On Wednesday night a parade of children and young people came to our door all dressed up in costumes. I especially like watching the little ones who stare down into their bags as the candy bars drop down with an expression on their faces like they can’t quite believe how this holiday works.
Halloween has certainly changed over the years. Mass produced costumes did not appear in stores until the 1930’s, and “trick or treating” as we know it did not become a fixture of the holiday until the 1950’s. Today, Halloween has grown considerably in popularity. If you walked around your neighborhood last Wednesday, you would have seen the traditional pumpkins, bales of hay and, of course, black cats and skeletons, plus, cottony spider webs stretched across bushes, witches wrapped around the trunk of a tree, and faux grave stones with humorous citations. One indication of the popularity of this holiday is that last year, Halloween retail sales exceeded $ 5 billion.
I like Halloween. It’s fun for kids of all ages. But for some more conservative clergy, it is considered a questionable holiday. They don’t like Halloween because they see it as taking away from the true meaning of All Hallow’s Eve. Actually, they’ve got it a bit backwards.
The origins of Halloween pre-date Christianity, and are found in the ancient Celtic festival of the dead called Samhain. November marked the new year in the Celtic world, when cattle and sheep were moved to closer pastures and the grain was stored up in preparation for the darkness of winter that was about to descend. The Celts believed that the world of the living and the dead existed side-by-side, with only a thin veil to separate them – and that the souls of those who had died during the year moved on Samhain, November 1, to the otherworld. On the evening before, the souls, spirits and ghosts of the dead were thought to be out and about. The Celts made it into a festival. Animals were sacrificed, fruits and vegetables were gathered in and shared, and great bonfires were built to light the way for the dead. Some households set an extra place at the table for a departed relative.
When Christian missionaries came from Ireland to Scotland and the Celtic lands of Northern Europe, they converted, or attempted to convert, this cultural custom by absorbing, redefining and renaming Samhain. And so in the church it became All Saints’ Day, the occasion to remember and celebrate the lives of the faithful departed. The night before All Saints’ became All Hallow’s Eve. Obviously, Hallow’s Eve evolved into the holiday we call Halloween today.
The conversion of the original Celtic holiday of Samhain didn’t entirely take, which should not be a surprise. It’s always hard to completely change a long established custom. And so All Saints’ Day became one of the seven feasts of the Christian Church, while Halloween continued to bump along pretty much with the old Celtic intent intact.
Barbara Brown Taylor reflects: “The ancient customs survived for thousands of years for a reason, and the reason seems to have everything to do with our need to remember those who have died, to acknowledge the gulf between the living and the dead, but also to reach across it, at least on this one day of the year to publicly recognize those who have gone before us and whom we are certain to follow.” (Weavings, Sept/Oct 1988)
Remembering the persons who have touched our lives is such an important part of how we are able to deal with loss, and how we honor those whose lives have meant so much to us.
The National Press Club once invited the Reverend Fred Rogers (of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) to speak at one of its luncheons. These events are famous for bringing together government officials, business leaders, diplomats and the press, of course. When Mr. Rogers was announced as the speaker, attendees joked ahead of time that it was going to be a “light” lunch.
Mr. Rogers began by taking out his pocket watch and announcing that he wanted to start his speech with two minutes of silence during which he invited each person present to “remember people in their past – parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and others – who had made it possible for them to accomplish so much” to be where they were today…The room grew quiet as the seconds ticked away. A reporter said that one could hear all around the room people sniffling as they were moved by the memories of those how had made sacrifices on their behalf and who had given them many gifts.” (Thomas Long, Testimony, p. 110, as quoted by John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church in his sermon, Thanksgiving, November 21, 2004)
All Saints’ Sunday is that special time in the church when we publicly remember those who have helped make us the persons we are, as we give thanks to God for the ways in which our lives were enriched and enlarged by those who have gone on before us and now rest in God’s loving care. And the meaning of All Saints’ becomes more precious the longer we live. For as Annie Dillard has observed, “It’s the extraordinary rent you have to pay as long as you stay.”
The service of All Saints’ speaks quietly and eloquently to what we believe as Christians about life and death. Death is not a subject our culture is very comfortable with, though the reality is that it is a natural part of life. Over the long expanse of time, different cultures have acknowledged it in different ways.
On a tour of Spain a few years ago, our group visited the Monastery of San Lorenzo El Real, better known as El Escorial, outside of Madrid. It is a massive 16th century structure encompassing a monastery, what once were the royal living quarters, and a large basilica with a beautiful baroque altar. Directly beneath the altar, one floor below, close by a dining room and one of the bedrooms, was a gilded, marble mausoleum room containing the tombs of the kings and queens of Spain over the centuries. Here, for generations, life and death existed in close proximity, side-by-side, in a place where communion was offered every day.
Now lest you assume this is just a historical practice of the past, think for a moment about the many churches with graveyards right outside their doors. Or consider our own Bowen Memorial Garden just on the other side of the stained glass windows. Here in our church today, life and death are also linked, giving testimony to our belief in the core truth of the resurrection – that life in God is more powerful than death.
In the letter to the Ephesians, the writer borrows the Apostle Paul’s pen and says, “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…so that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory…I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that , with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…” There is an elegance to these words that describe the promise of eternal life, the hope toward which we stretch ourselves on All Saints’ Sunday.
In Jesus Christ we have been assured death does not mark the end of a life, that beyond death new life in God awaits. It is this blessed inheritance that makes it possible for us to stand beside the grave of a loved one and not despair as we hear the words, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, we commend to almighty God…”
For those of us who have known loss, the truth of this blessed inheritance from God is grounded in a special kind of knowing. One that rests on faith. Such that “with the eyes of our hearts enlightened” our usual reliance on empirical proof is overcome. So much of faith, is after all, seeing with the eyes of the heart. Our hearts see what our minds cannot. Just ask the one who grieves today what their heart is saying, how their faith helps them to hold it together. Is it not our heart that tells us that there are ties that bind us close to those we love which death cannot separate us from? This is a kind of heartfelt knowing that depends not on words or proof, but rather on the intuitions of faith. So that when death comes, we can carry on in hope.
Finally, it is a mystery. That is the essence of a wonderful story Henri No uwen imagined between two twins in their mother’s womb.
The sister said to her brother, “I believe there is life after birth.”
Her brother protested vehemently, “No, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing else to do but cling to the cord that feeds us.”
The little girl insisted, “There must be something else, a place with light where there is freedom to move.” But she could not convince her twin brother.
After some silence, the sister said hesitantly, “I have something else to say and I’m afraid you won’t believe that, either, but I think there is a mother!”
Her brother shouted: “What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? This place is all we have….”
The sister was quite overwhelmed, but she couldn’t let go of her thought and finally she said, “Don’t you feel those squeezes once in a while? They are quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.”
“Yes,” he said. “What’s special about that?”
“Well,” the sister said, “I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our mother face to face.”
And so trusting in the loving goodness and power of God, on this All Saints’ Sunday we honor those who have gone before us to join in what the Apostles Creed calls “the communion of the saints.” In a few minutes, as Jane and I read the names of those in our family of faith who have died this past year, we will remember those small details that made them dear to us. And many of us will picture in our mind’s eye other people as well, people whose lives have touched ours, whose love has sustained us, whose very presence in our life has made a difference. In memory, we carry them within us into the future and their lives continueto influence us.
“Consciously remembering those who have died,” writes Thomas Attig, “is the key that opens our hearts and allows us to love them still…the more we remember the more we connect with the meaning of their lives.”
May it be so. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.