Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 / Psalm 149 / Ephesians 1:11-23 / Luke 6:20-31
In our culture it is almost impossible to ignore All Saints’ Day. Not because everyone follows the liturgical calendar but because of All Saints’ Eve, Hallow’s Eve, known as Halloween.
At CVS in Monteagle since Labor Day, I’ve been greeted by a life-like hobbit sized witch and a large plastic dog skeleton, larger than Penny, in addition to fake jack-o-lanterns, scary masks, and large candy displays in orange and black bags, along with reminders to get my flu shot. I should probably do the “preacherish” thing and rail against Halloween as a profanation of the sacred. But it would be hypocritical because I like all the witch, wizard, and goblin stuff. And I also think there are aspects of Halloween that can enhance and deepen our celebration of All Saints’ Day.
Halloween is centuries older than All Saints’ Day and has pre-Christian Celtic roots. All Saints’ Day began to be celebrated later, in the 8th century. Halloween was a festival at the end of the harvest between the equinox and the solstice. It was an entrance into the dark time of the year. It was a liminal time when boundaries between this world and the other world thinned and spirits were on the loose. This included the souls of the dead and hungry and malevolent spirits.
Many contemporary Halloween customs are related to this thinning of bounds between this world and the spirit world. Jack-o-lanterns were supposed to scare spirits, you give treats to placate spirits, and people wore costumes to imitate spirits.
Contemporary Halloween with its playful thinning of bounds between this world and the spirit worlds reminds us that All Saints’ Day, a celebration of faith that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We dwell in the nearness of saints known and unknown, who have gone before.
But the contrast between All Saints’ Day and Halloween couldn’t be greater – the saint verses the demon. The surprising thing is that saints and demons are quite familiar with one another, although not exactly friends. For example, in Mark’s gospel the demons know exactly who Jesus is and what his mission is while the crowds and the disciples remain confused and clueless. In both the readings from Ephesians and Daniel the holy ones, the saints, are caught up in cosmic spiritual conflicts between the powers of light and darkness.
The thing is that sanctity is an uncanny presence. It participates in the numinous reality of the divine itself, which is wholly other, alien and foreign, and can appear demonic. For example, when God comes to Jacob by the river Jabbok, God comes as a river demon with which Jacob struggles all night. Jacob was transformed by the presence, both injured and blessed. Some of Jesus’ disciples, according to Luke’s account, were terrified when faced with the transfigured numinous presence of Jesus.
The contrast and close proximity of gruesome darkness of Halloween and the radiance of All Saints’ Day reminds us of the mysterious otherness of God which encompasses both light and darkness. The contrast between Halloween and All Saints’ Day communion of saints somehow participates in, or is on familiar terms with, this mysterious light and darkness. They both suggest that we are part of a reality that is far more extensive and more complex and mysterious than we can ever know – the great cloud of witnesses, the fellowship of the saints, the mystical body of Christ. And we as members of that mystical body are participants in an awesome mystery.
One of the illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen represents this mysterious reality beautifully. There are concentric circles that surround an open center. When looked at more closely, each circle is filled with angels and/or saints and are mulit-colored radiating outwards toward infinity.
Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great and mysterious cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race which is set before us.