Reference: Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17
Every year at this time, Evangelicals debate whether or not Christians should participate in Halloween festivities, citing possible satanic or evil overtones. For myself, I have noted, long before the current state of national crisis, the proximity of Halloween to election day, with its promises of treats followed by delivery of tricks. And, of course, part of the idea of the contemporary Halloween is to promote scary stuff, much of it distinctly lacking in Christian content.
Nevertheless, the Evangelical debate exposes a serious flaw in American Christianity: its roots are in a Protestant, especially Puritan, soil that has no church year. The realization that Halloween is a major Christian festival is missing. Most American Protestants did not even celebrate Christmas as a day to be in church until recent times, let alone other festivals. The Puritan mind abhorred festivals, seeing them all as Papist and pagan events to be suppressed. The Sabbath alone was to be observed. In the last century and a half, the infusion of large numbers of immigrants from less dour backgrounds has mitigated the scene. But in the meantime, secularized versions of Christian holidays have also made great inroads in the vacuum left by the absence of the Christian year.
All Hallows Eve (“Hallow ‘Een”) is one of the victims. If you want scary stuff, think how All Saints Day has been trashed by a large number of Christians and then hijacked by the secular world. For a catholic Christian, or any Christian without total amnesia about the history of two Christian millennia and serious ignorance of the New Testament besides, the question is not whether we should participate in the celebration, but rather how to recapture the feast (to put the hallowed back into Halloween, to paraphrase the Christmas slogan). As with Christmas, American Protestants have no one but themselves to blame for this. The secular world only took over the abandoned calendar and filled it with its own distorted half-remembered version of things.
We have a long way to go with All Saints Day. It is still not widely celebrated among American Christians, and those who do have often given up the calendar day and moved to the following Sunday, so as not to inconvenience people who still think only the Sabbath belongs to God. Yet All Saints Day is key to living the Christian life, in all tenses. It is the day when we especially remember all those who have followed the pilgrim path past the potholes and detours and on into glory, when we especially note the signposts posted along the present pilgrim path by Jesus (aka the Beatitudes, the foundation of Christian ethics) and glimpse our future as we are lifted with John in the Book of Revelation to join our Liturgy with that of the heavenly host.
This combination of past, present and future must seem odd to many. First, our death-denying culture doesn’t want to bring to mind those who have died. Part of Halloween is based on the fright around death. The dead are not recalled as saints to be remembered with gratitude and love, but spooks to be avoided lest they somehow trap us in mortality. Second, Christian ethics are generally identified as based on the Ten Commandments, not the Beatitudes, partly because the exposure to the Gospel for All Saints Day has been missing, the privilege of but a few to hear. Third, understanding that every Eucharist accesses Heaven, with its continuous celebration of massive hosts of people without the usual human distinctions (all tribes are present and integrated at the big party in Revelation 7) is foreign to many who treasure and promote human divisions, in and out of church.
The fact is that Christianity goes counter-culture in our nation. In our attitude towards death, we have much more in common with the Mexican celebration, El Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead. Instead of fright, the day is spent remembering and celebrating the departed, a day when the barrier of death is matched by families who refuse to let the veil blot out the remembrance of those still loved. And what would happen if Christians lived by the Beatitudes? They are given, not as Law, but as guides; “blessed are you” if you can live like this, rather than “thou shalt not.” Those who think they live by the Ten Commandments obviously need to read Jesus’ interpretation of them. It is not that they are bad laws. It is that we are bad law-keepers. The Ten Commandments lead to disobedience, doom and death, as both Jesus and St. Paul are at pains to point out. They are useful as guides for civil law and especially to show us that we cannot save ourselves, but are totally dependent on the grace of God. If, in gratitude for that grace, we ask how we should live, the answer is given, not by Moses but by Jesus in Matthew 5:1-12, the Gospel for All Saints Day. And the thought that our final goal is not a heaven where good people, whoever they are, rest and feel good, but rather an intense raucous celebration of the Eucharist by the entire creation, including those whose not at all insignificant sins have been washed by our Savior, so that we, for the first time in our lives, are free and complete.
The Jewish day, the day of early Christians and therefore the liturgical day, starts at sundown and goes the 24 hours to the next sundown. All Hallows Eve is therefore already All Saints Day. What better time to make the point that we Christians are living “la vida loca,” as the song says. Many thought of us as the pillars of respectable citizenry. But we are counter-culture, those whose salvation has been radically given us by the Cross, not by our goodness, those whose lives are driven by eucharistic response to be poor in spirit, peacemakers, comforters of those who mourn, those who have exceeding joy, ultimately completed in the large crowd before the throne.