This is a sermon I preached for the festival of All Saints at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul.
We’ve all heard from certain circles how we need to “take back” Christmas from a secularized culture. And to be honest, this does not seem to me to be a bad idea. There are, of course, the shrill angry voices that really want to reimpose Christianity on the larger culture. Now this is indeed a bad idea. It’s a cultural imperialism in place of church reform. But the “take back Christmas” call has also yielded some great fruit in recent years. Every year more and more Christians are refusing to go into debt and spend inordinate amounts of money on gifts; we have organizations that allow you to donate food or cattle to poor families as a gift on behalf of others; there is a return to small, handmade gifts, and an open hostility to the consumerism that has captured the American imagination.
But let me propose that there’s another holiday that Christians ought to “take back;” namely, Halloween. Some of you may not know that Halloween is an abbreviated form of “All Hallow’s Eve,” and All Hallows is better known as the christian feast of All Saints, celebrated in the West on the first of November. And this festival is kind of a big deal. It is one of the seven principal feasts in the Book of Common Prayer, the manual that determines our liturgy and calendar. And of all seven principal feasts, which include Easter Day, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany, it is the only one that can be moved from its day of celebration to the next Sunday. It’s also one of four recommended feasts for baptisms. Perhaps even just an initial step toward reorienting Halloween toward its christian meaning is the recognition that whatever else we’re doing on Halloween, it has more meaning than simply being a time to get candy and dress up.
Now when I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween because it was believed that it had all kinds of demonic undertones. Even when I was out of high school and living in Blaine, I remember being told that Halloween in nearby Anoka, a town famous for its Halloween celebrations, is a time of spiritual darkness. There was almost a palpable fear that your well being might be threatened if you went out there in that mass of hidden evil.
This is, ironically, exactly opposed to the traditional Christian belief and practice of Halloween. You see, the reason that Christians came to dress up as witches, and devils, and ghosts, and skeletons, was to proclaim the good news that through Jesus’s death and resurrection, all evil forces — often called “Powers” in the New Testament — and indeed death and hell themselves have been overcome. We dress up in over the top, silly, and scary costumes to mock these powers that would presume to keep us bound in fear.
And this is why we have the Scriptural readings we do for this week. Readings that could fit just as well in Advent and Easter. They are dramatic passages having to do with the final cosmic upheaval and renewal that God has brought about in Jesus and will bring about in the end. The reading from Isaiah is interesting because much of the Old Testament focuses its message around God’s relationship with Israel. But there are a good handful of moments where we get a glimpse of what God is doing for the whole earth. Here, Death is likened to a dark shroud cast over all peoples; it’s a plague and a problem. We hear perhaps too often that “death is just a natural part of life,” but this passage, among others, would disagree. If it was simply a part of life equivalent to aging or getting hungry, death would be something to honor and accept. But for Christians, salvation is nothing less than the unity and communion of all people in Christ. If that is what salvation means for us, then Death is the one who mocks here, for we all too often see communion cut off by death. God’s hope and plan for humanity’s salvation appears a noble minded ideal, perhaps, but not one that looks as if it will ever arrive. And it is in this way that death and the powers of death were the first to dress up and make fun – making a joke of God’s plan.
And if we’re honest, sometimes it makes sense to fear. Even the psalms understand the power of death. Psalm 6 says:
My spirit shakes with terror;
how long, O Lord, how long?
Turn, O Lord, and deliver me;
save me for your mercy’s sake.
For in death no one remembers you;
and who will give you thanks in the grave?
Even communion with God seems unable to cross the gap.
There’s also another potential problem in saying that in Jesus God has swallowed up Death. Surely death actually occurs? And because of death we grieve. The hope of resurrection can seem to be a way of refusing to face reality, and make light of loss. But we must insist that we do not believe in a refusing to take death seriously or that we make light of the real sense of anguish and loss people experience through death, because the Jesus that is risen is also the same Jesus who was crucified. There is no way to follow Jesus without the Cross and there is no resurrection but through his death. I’m reminded of how close death can be to Christian communities by pictures I’ve seen — have you seen them? — of entire rooms and crypts in monasteries filled with the skulls and bones of hundreds of monks and pilgrims.There would be no need to mock witches, and ghosts, and such things was it not for the fact that powers not of God sometimes press us so tightly.
But think of it! Think of how closely these skull-filled rooms resemble our Halloween festivities. In the face of death’s power we do not have easy answers. We have, as Isaiah says, only a faith and a hope that what appears to be most real to us right now, will in the end be left behind. Because we don’t see this end yet. We wait. And we wait. And we wait. But messed up powers seems to run things right now. And the realists want to tell us to accept it. Realists tell us that it is necessary, given the way the world is, to protect one’s interests through whatever means seem fitting. This is the path of those who still fear death. I don’t know if you caught the third presidential debate but we got a deeply cynical view of this. There was a matter of fact casualness from both candidates that aggressive warfare is not only what is necessary for America’s peace, but there appeared to be absolutely no sense of this even being tragic. One does not need to be a pacifist to see that this mentality ought to be deeply problematic for Christians, for whom all people are potentially someone whom God is saving, and for whom all people are our neighbors.
But All Saints is even more than a faith that one day things will be sorted out. We believe that in some mysterious way, even those who have died have a share in what we are doing. In the Prayers of the People we close saying “ In the communion of all the saints, let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life, to Christ our God.” That is, we are saying that they pray with us, even beyond death. Likewise, in the Eucharist, we pray with the “the heavenly chorus, with prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and with all those in every generation who have looked to you in hope.” Both the living and the dead are united in the one body of Christ and we are joined together mysteriously in the Eucharist.
This present reality extends, of course, to those of us now living. Where do forces of death seem to reign in your life? Are there people with whom you are unreconciled? Maybe there’s a lot of pain there and you don’t see a way beyond it? When I first became Episcopalian and heard of a parish called “All Saints” I thought that sounded kinda lazy. What? You couldn’t pick a Matthew or a John? You just get all of them? But I see now the power of this message standing behind the feast of All Saints, and the things we do on Halloween, that sometimes we have got to muster up the strength to mock those powers, because they do not have power over us any longer. In closing, consider the words of Paul: I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers; neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.