In recent years Halloween seems to have needed defending against those who regard it as terrible. Certainly there can be excess at Halloween, but in itself the holiday is worthwhile. It can even teach us something of importance.
Halloween is October 31, and All Saints' is November 1, though many congregations celebrate All Saints' on the following Sunday. As is well known, the name Halloween means All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve. It's also widely known that many popular Halloween customs date back to the pre-Christian Druids of Ireland and Britain.
However, these customs come to us through the filter of many Christian centuries. Christ has conquered the powers of darkness and revealed the old gods to be nothing. The once fearful aspects of this season have become playful. Where once adults shuddered in fear, now even the smallest child can laugh.
It's Christian confidence that makes Halloween a light-hearted time. Just as many who are not Christian share the joy of Christmas each year because the light of Jesus is abundant, even so many who are not Christian share our confidence at Halloween because grace is abundant. It overflows.
Halloween has been baptized. It has become All Saints' Eve in more than name alone. Both occasions address the same themes, though they do so in different ways. Both occasions are concerned with the hope of life beyond the grave, choosing the side of the angels, and courage in a scary universe. All Saints' approaches these themes with triumphant joy. Halloween deals with them through mischievous humor. Blessed are those who pass through the humor of Halloween to the joy of All Saints'.
Children are the chief celebrants of Halloween. Those of us who are adults serve as their acolytes. And what do children do on Halloween? They dress up in outlandish costumes and witness their peers dressed up the same way. They walk through their neighborhoods in the evening, enter houses made to look frightful, they collect candy, and they return home again. The whole business is a delightful joke. Behind the scary masks and costumes are laughing children. Inside the frightful houses, decorated with spider webs and candles, are friendly, generous neighbors.
The child who goes forth with a trick-or-treat bag takes a sane, healthy, and adventuresome risk, and finds that the universe can be a safe place. The trick-or-treater discovers that the world is a comedy where terrible things have been defeated and remain only as a laughingstock. It's a great therapy for fear. There's nothing hellish about it, because in hell there is no laughter.
Those of us past childhood would do well to imitate the willingness of children to venture forth into the unknown, take risks, and return home not only safe but triumphant. Children are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. They are new to this fight, and want to prove themselves heroic.
Benedictine sister Genevieve Glen writes of children:
âThey are all too aware of the human need to wrestle in the inward night with the unreasoning, the untamed, the inexplicable, and yes, the evil in us to believe us when we tell them that there are no witches and warlocks, no ghosts and goblins, and no phosphorescent skeletons. â¦ They know, too, that if you're afraid of something, the best thing to do is to dress yourself and your friends -- and even your little brother -- as the thing you're afraid of, so that you can see it in familiar flesh and confront it and deal with it and prove to yourself that it can't really hurt you. They know that pretending that it isn't real won't work if it is. There are monsters under the bed.â
So the Halloween wisdom of children comes down to this: There are monsters under the bed, but we can face our fears, and by grace and struggle be set free from them. This is infinitely preferable to the common adult attitude that denies monsters under the bed, yet insists on remaining fearful. The children have caught the Gospel. Their hearts are filled with faith and fun.
This feast of All Saints', with triumphant music, splendid prayers, white hangings and vestments, and everything else -- this is the sunny side of Halloween. Today is joy while last night was comedy. The saints we honor this day, a vast, innumerable crowd, are but graduates of the school of grace and struggle in which trick-or-treaters have just enrolled. The saints are those wise enough to face their fears and accept the help of God as naturally as a small child walking in the dark accepts a parent's hand.
The saints are those who accept an adventuresome risk, and one that's sane and healthy too, even if their contemporaries can't figure them out. These saints know the great therapy for fear. They take God seriously, at his word, while everything else, everyone else, including themselves, they regard not seriously, but lightly.
Saints are people who aren't afraid to live with both the gruesome and the glorious. They are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. They are called forth into the unknown as into a dark night, they venture forth, enter spooky places, and return home not only safe but triumphant.
What makes them the saints they are? The renowned Episcopal preacher Barbara Taylor offers a list of upsetting characteristics, including âimmoderate faith, intemperate hope (and) inordinate love.â They put on these characteristics like the outlandish costumes of Halloween, and never take them off.
Their hearts are full of faith and fun. Ignatius Loyola told his seminarians, âLaugh and grow strong!â Philip Neri performed ridiculous dances in the presence of cardinals and wore his clothes inside out. Teresa of Avila taught her Carmelite nuns to dance on holy days and even gave them castanets.
Children at Halloween recognize that beyond the very real struggle, there is a world of delight, free from fear's control. That world is where the saints dwell, both saints in heaven and saints on earth.
Perhaps you have known some saints. Perhaps you know some now. Perhaps you are one of these saints, dwelling, part of the time at least, in that world of delight.
Today is the feast of All Saints. We remember those who have gone before, and pray that we may follow after.
Trick-or-treaters venturing forth on Halloween night provide us with a map for the journey, one drawn in the bright colors of childhood trust, courage, and humor.
The saints massed in their glorious ranks are a promise of our happy return home, with hearts glad and eyes open to the wonder of God.
As on Halloween night children were everywhere in outlandish attire, so every day of the year saints are everywhere, in heaven and on earth, known to us and unknown, costumed and uncostumed, children of God living by love and delight, all of them with one common home where the feast has no ending.
Using words from the priest and poet John Donne, let us pray to join the saints in that one common home:
âBring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity in the habitations of thy glory and dominion world without end. Amen.â