In the past few years I have noticed that some of the more fundamentalist churches have taken to condemning the celebration of Hallowe'en as being inspired by the devil. Personally, I think this is a real stretch, and that it is really an exercise in trying to get attention by being against something. I think it may also reflect a lack of awareness of the real roots of the holiday.
How many here have Irish or Scots or Welsh blood? I have some Irish in me. The Celts are ancestors of Scots and Welsh and Irish people. The Celts had a highly developed culture, and literature, and religion long before the coming of Christianity to their lands. Their religion, like ours, not only addressed concerns about behaviour and morality, it provided a way to understand all of creation. The Celts had four major religious holidays in their calendar, called festivals of fire, that marked important times.
The most important of the fire festivals was called ( pronounced Sowen ) Samhain. It was the Celtic New Year, and fell on November 1. Samhain was celebrated for three days. The day before Samhain is the last day of the old year and the day after Samhain is the first day of the new year. The Celts placed a lot of importance upon endings and beginnings, and on the space between an end and a new beginning. This was a magical, transitional time, when the rules that normally held the universe together were suspended, and unusual things could happen.
The Celts believed that at this special “between time”, the souls of all the people who had died in the previous year could make their journey from this world to the next world. The Celts didn’t believe in heaven or hell. They believed that the souls of the dead left this life behind and graduated to the next level.
It makes sense that they had this celebration at this time of year. The gathering of souls to go to the next level was a bit like the harvest of crops that had just been completed. This was also the time of year when pastured animals were brought home, and some of those animals would be killed and butchered, to provide meat for the winter, and to cull the herds so that the animal feed would go further. It’s a time of year for wrapping up loose ends.
Still, the idea that bodiless souls could be floating around is a bit scary. There was some concern that these souls could come back to settle old scores. So it was common to have big festive parties, with lots of noise, and huge bonfires to scare away the spirits. Some people wore masks to disguise them from the ghosts.
This was, for the Celts, New Year’s Eve, and they had big parties, just like some people do today. There would be lots of food and drink, because the fall harvest had just been completed, and if people came calling at your door or your gate you would share with them.
When Christianity came to the British Isles, this festival of fire was baptised with holy water, and became All Saints Day, or HallowMas. The night before was called the Eve of All Hallows, or Hallowe’en. The day after was called All Soul’s Day. When the church took it over, All Saints Day became a time to celebrate God's harvesting into heaven the faithful people of every age, culture and walk of life.
For us, All Saints Day hasn’t really caught on in comparison to Hallowe’en. We are still attracted to the dark symbols- the skeletons and skulls, the black bats, the ghosts and goblins- the elements of the supernatural. I think that this is because we live in a culture that doesn’t deal with change, or death very well, and craves an outlet for all the spooky ideas and feelings.
In some parts of the world, death is dealt with very differently, and the Hallowe’en /All Saints celebration is very different. In Mexico the first and second of November are the Days of the Dead. The evening of October 31 is the beginning of the Day of the Dead Children, which is followed on November 1 by the Day of the Dead Adults. Skeleton figures-candy (sugar skulls), toys, statues and decorations-are seen everywhere. It is a time for great festivity, with traditional plays and food. It is a time to play with death. Family graves are decorated and picnics are held at the graves of deceased family members, who are thought of as honoured guests at the party.
We would never do that kind of thing in our culture. In many families, once the messiness of a funeral is over and done with, the person who is died is hardly ever talked about again. They are not exactly forgotten, but we probably would not think of holding a party in their honour at their grave. We live in a society that worships youth and health and fitness, and tries to deny that death is real. Except at Hallowe’en, then it’s okay to put tombstones and spider webs on your front lawn, and give out candy to children dressed as ghosts and ghouls.
Most of the time, we avoid talking and thinking about death. It makes us uncomfortable, because we have so many unanswered questions. It’s too bad that we don’t see the world more like the ancient Celts did. They understood that everything has a beginning and an ending. They honoured that, and recognised that nothing lasts forever. They did not waste their time trying to deny the reality of death, they saw it as a part of our life cycle.
If you remember that there was history before your life began, and that there will be a future that goes on after you die, it can give you a broader perspective on the everyday. Maybe that is more like the way God sees things, from a perspective outside the flow of time. When we do let ourselves think about death, and the end of our own lives, it is good to also think about God, who is ultimately in charge.
We heard a reading this morning from the last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelations. Revelations is probably a good choice for Hallowe’en, because it is the most scary and dangerous book in the Bible, if it is misinterpreted. Images and ideas from Revelations have been used by Hollywood, and by horror book writers, to scare us for generations. This is ironic, because Revelations was written not to frighten people, but to offer them comfort and hope.
Revelations is probably the work of a Jewish Christian who wrote in a style that we now call apocalyptic. Do you remember the movie “Apocalypse Now”? It was about the devastation of the Viet Nam War, which for people in the middle of it, seemed like the end of the world. The word Apocalypse refers to the end of the world.
Visions of the end of the world seem to emerge at times when people feel like life just can’t get any worse, or better. When they feel like there is no earthly solution to their problems, and the only thing that can happen is that God will step in and wipe the slate clean. The possibility is held up that there will be a time of reckoning, when God will step in to destroy the wicked, to save those who suffer, to bring down the powerful and raise up the meek.
The passage I read for you this morning is a vision of heaven. The picture is of the gathering of the saints, those who have been faithful to God, and now, at the end of their earthly lives, find themselves with God in heaven.
This is an image that Christians have drawn great comfort from over the centuries, because they find it in an answer to their questions about death. They see a picture of God in charge at the end, a God who has been with them through all of their days, who has seen how their lives have gone, and who welcomes them to heaven.
This image was particularly important during the times when Christians were persecuted, even killed for the faith. History is full of the stories of people who are remembered as living out their faith no matter the cost. Saint Stephen and Saint Peter were early martyrs of the church, who were killed for their beliefs.
This image of the gathering of the faithful in heaven may also become more important to us as we make our way through the stages of life. As we remember those who have gone before us, and who now enjoy their reward with God in heaven, we are also reminded that we are headed there too, and that we will see them again. We live in a world that does not like to talk about death. That denial of death can fill us with fear. As Christians, we don’t have all the answers to the hard questions about life and death, but we place our faith and trust in God. Amen