It’s All-Saints’ Sunday, our church holiday to celebrate those faithful we’ve known and loved who aren’t alive on earth anymore. All Saints or “All Hallows” is part of where we get Halloween (the night before “All Hallows” = All Hallows Eve = Hallows e’en = Halloween).
To me I think Halloween draws out mixed feelings in people. Some love it, some not so much. On one hand it can just be fellowship time, parties, fall colors, candy and costumes and maybe an innocent scare. On the other hand, all of the above can definitely be taken to a not-so-healthy extreme. And some folks definitely make use of the day to try to tap into some truly dark things. At the heart of the multiple personalities of Halloween, to me, is the conglomeration of how cultures over time have dealt with the major topics of this time of year: death, the other-worldly and the spiritual.
Practically every human culture has found ways to cope with grief, loss, death, and the utter fear/unknown that can accompany all of that. So much of what we do ties back to Celtic/Gaelic, Roman and Asian tradition. For instance, at this time of year ancient Europeans found themselves at the time of the grain harvest (and butchering of livestock) in preparation for winter. The days were transitioning from long and sunlit to shorter, darker, heading into the deadly cold-weather season; so, yes, death, grief and fear were maybe on the mind. This time of year, to many, was when the veil between the spiritual realm and the land of the living was at its thinnest. The result is a time when “ghosts” wandered abroad, so people dressed up like spiritual things in order to either blend in and not be harmed, or to scare off the paranormal. Remembering lost loved ones, and wondering about the year to come, divination became common as folks tried to speak to the dead.
What we have, then, is a picture of human beings trying to deal with the grief of life, and the uncertainty of a future where death was so common. Could be that Halloween practice became an expression of all of that fear, and an attempt at some control, or some comfort.
And up and against all of that came the church’s teaching, and the perspective on death that comes with faith that Jesus is the Christ. In ancient days of the Church, we have an entirely different tone given to remembering the dead and looking ahead into the unknown future – one of celebration and hope. When early Christians were put to death for their faith, like John the Baptist, nearly every Apostle, Stephen and so many more, those who remained would take note of where/when they were martyred and celebrate that anniversary each year almost as a “birthday” feast for the saints. The believers saw death as the beginning of that new adventure that is eternal life in Christ Jesus. Eventually there were so many martyrs that every day of the year would’ve been swamped, such that eventually the church chose a single day to honor them, and that day was later expanded to celebrate all the faithful, on November 1st each year.
Celebration. Feast in the face of death, rather than grappling for control, or turning to some other coping mechanism. Faith in death as a starting point in the kingdom of God. It’s another way to express ourselves at Halloween.
And it’s the same idea in the story of Ruth that we begin on Sunday. The story of famine and the death of Naomi’s husband and sons (Ruth’s husband) in a foreign land. Ruth is given the choice in the midst of that grief to cash out and go home. But instead she clings to Naomi and Naomi’s people, and Naomi’s God. And they head down an uncertain road together.
And the universe would never be the same.