coming up on Halloween

As I write, we’re coming up on Halloween:
All Hallows’ Evening—
the night before All Hallows or All Saints’ Day.

In our neighborhood, this means, primarily,
assessing the candy supply,
the costumes desired and assembled.
It means carving out time to carve pumpkins.
It means the dog has been on high alert during recent walks,
noting and inspecting all the diverse seasonal decorations—
particularly the ones moving and making noises.

Originally though, All Hallows’ Eve
was but the vigil leading into All Saints’ Day,
a day set aside to remember the dead—
to consider their legacies,
even as we remember we, too, will die;
we, too, will leave a legacy of one sort or another.

In the early years of the early church,
as the desire to commemorate the church’s martyrs
ran into the truth that there were too many
for each to have her or his own feast day,
one day came to be set aside—
initially the first Sunday after Pentecost,
then May 13,
just perchance the culminating day of an ancient Roman
three day household festival, the Lemuralia,
the annual time to exorcise the dead from homes.
The belief in the presence of restless spirits,
fearful and malevolent,
contributed to the old belief
that May, the month of these exorcisms,
was an unlucky month for weddings.

In some eastern traditions, All Hallows
is still celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
In the West, however, the church moved the feast day
to November 1, a day that just happened to fall
at the culmination of an ancient Irish festival,
Samhain (the old Irish name for November).

The church did,
apparently, have a strategy
for a systematic and systemic claiming
and repurposing of pagan festivals
as Christian holy days.

Samhain had its roots in a harvest festival—
one marking the end of harvest—
the beginning of relying on what was harvested and slaughtered—
the dead supporting the living.
But Samhain also fell between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice
at the transition into the darker part of the year,
and so, represented a day, in days of old,
when the veil lay thin between the living and the dead—
and so a day on which the dead posed a threat to the living—
like the Lemuralia!
And on a night with that veil lying thin,
the denizens of Faerie were set loose,
and ghouls and goblins prowled,
witches and ghosts.

And because in our stories
of facing the fears of the deep winter’s night
there’s always a protective option—
a saving knowledge
the people made noise,
and lit bonfires,
and wore costumes to confuse the dead
or to appease them.

Now, the story is told, amidst the many stories told,
that doughnuts have their origin in All Hallows’ Eve lore.
For beggars would take the opportunity to go door to door
asking for a “soul cake,” in return for which
they would pray for the souls of dead of that house.
So one pious cook, as the story is told,
in evangelistic fervor, I guess,
dedicated herself to devising a soul cake
to remind the beggars of eternity—
that amidst their prayers for the souls of others
they might reflect on their own.
To fashion this inspiring soul cake,
she cut a hole in the shortbread cake
and deep fried the circle as a symbol of eternity.
(This would make “Dunkin’ Donuts,”
a kind of particularly Baptist evangelistic soul cake, right?!).

Amidst the many stories told,
I came across one story even repurposing the jack-o’-lantern—
as expression of the kenotic (the self-emptying) theology
manifest in the Philippian hymn:
Let this mind be in you—
the mind of Christ, who emptied himself—
emptied himself in order to be filled with light.
Think of that scooping out the pumpkin seed
and the pumpkin goop this year—
replacing it all with a candle!

Once upon a time, our faith shaped our culture,
whether that be in the invention
or the claiming of the invention of doughnuts,
the interpretation of the jack-o’-lantern
or, more seriously, in the shaping, for centuries,
of classical art.

We’ve noted before how Bach
rather famously inscribed some of his music
with either the phrase “Soli Deo Gloria” or the initials S.D.G.—
glory to God alone.
He would write, “The aim and final end of all music
should be none other than the glory of God
and the refreshment of the soul.”
These days our culture does more shaping of our faith
than vice versa.

So what would it be like to claim November
as a liminal time
in and through which to look more carefully
at our culture’s story with our faith’s eyes,
than at our faith’s story through our culture’s eyes,

and as we enter November’s dark chill—
as we step over fall’s threshold into winter—
as it gets dark earlier and stays dark longer,
to consider more carefully
what stories we want to tell
to sustain us through the season
and our culture.


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