Halloween is a very ancient festival, known as Samhain by the Celts. It was the Festival of the Dead. Cattle were brought back from their summer pastures and livestock slaughtered for the winter. Bonfires and lanterns would be lit; and the spirits had to be propitiated so that the people and their livestock would survive the winter.
Like most major feasts in ancient calendars, Samhain was a day of transition: in this case marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the season of darkness: a time of concern. In these ancient communities, which did not have the safety nets or resources we have now, a bad winter, or a bad harvest, or a delayed Spring, could be catastrophic. They knew something had to be done to calm supernatural anger. It was necessary to seek help from friendly spirits and from one’ ancestors who were already in that realm.
Many ancients, not just the Celts, believed that at this time of year the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, making it easier for us to communicate with those – the spirits of the dead and supernatural entities – who are part of that realm, but it also made it easier for them to trouble us if we didn’t treat them right! Halloween and All Saints Day both recall these beliefs, which have persisted for thousands of years, or more.
All Saints Day was originally part of a three day Medieval Christian festival that began with All Hallows Eve (which we now know as Halloween); and ended with All Souls Day on Nov 2.
All Saints Day was a joint celebration for all the Saints of the Church – since there were far too many to each have their own feast day, and All Souls Day was a day to remember the faithful who died in the previous year.
Most Protestant Churches have either merged these three days into a one day celebration that recognizes all saints of the church – known and unknown (meaning us, when we pass, too); or else they ignore the Festival completely – like the old Calvanists did – disdaining the Holiday, as they did all Holidays, as being too “Popish” in nature.
The tie that links Halloween, All Souls Day and All Saints Day together is the same ancient belief the Celts had, that the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at this time of year. It was a day very appropriate for seeking to calm our fears and uncertainties in this world by reaching out to the next, as the three days in the Medieval Christian Festival each did in their own ways.
I want to reflect for a moment on my last sermon, given on October 4th, where I spoke on the concept of Belief. I pointed out that as Christians, we often think that “believing” is a goal – of having a firm, unshakeable commitment to the absolute truth of God. But, I argued that belief is actually a process – a journey with God, not a journey to God. Belief is not something we achieve, not a goal. Belief is something we do. We don’t know where Belief will take us in our journey through life, but we know where we’re going to end up.
The point of this morning’s reading from The Revelation of John is similar: we’re not certain what road we’ll follow to get to the end, but that we’ll get to the end is certain.
And, we see the author telling us of God’s plan for The End, and beyond, with chapter upon chapter of disasters, plagues, and catastrophic judgments of all sorts that destroy the Heavens and the Earth.
But then here in chapter 21 we are told there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth, and that God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning AND the End.” In other words, God is already there, at the end, just as God is at the beginning. John quotes a loud voice from the throne as saying “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them…”. The quote ends with “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”
And “Then, the one who was seated on the throne said ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
Genesis says we came from God in the beginning; and now The Revelation of John tells us we will be with God again, in the End. In fact, it says God is already making all things new – the process is going on right now, here in the present. So, not only will God be with us in the end, but the End Times Kingdom of God that John foresaw is already being built all around us, and in us, right here and now.
And so, we come back to Halloween and All Saints Day.
You know, Christians were seen as a little odd, even foolish, especially in ancient eyes. Everyone was scared of death. People did not go into, or near, graveyards if they could avoid it. Being in the presence of death was always a scary thing. Most believed the world of the Dead was a shadowy, gray, uninteresting place. An eternity of … nothing – or torment.
But Christians obsessed over death, even welcomed it – they met in the Catacombs, right among dead bodies! They built their churches in graveyards, and even – in later centuries – buried their dead right inside of the church, or right next to it. How many old churches do you know of with old graveyards right around them? Even the famous Basilica of St. Peter in Rome is built on top of an ancient Roman graveyard. Christians handled the bones of the dead, made relics out of them, seeing them as objects of veneration, not fear. Many even welcomed the chance to become martyrs.
To Christians, the veil of Death, that dark, impenetrable horizon that marks the end of the journey of all of our lives, is not a fearful boundary between the worlds of the living and of the dead. It isn’t the end. Yes, the dead do not return – yet, but there is nothing to fear – as Christians we know that our journey will require us to travel through the valley of the Shadow of Death during our lives, and then beyond – into the realm of death itself. But, Jesus has returned, has shown us that God’s love – the undying and uncompromising love of our Creator, the creator of all that is, including Time itself, is a love that is more than sufficient to pierce the veil that separates these two worlds.
I do not see the Book of Revelation as a roadmap of exactly what will happen before the world ends. To me, it is the richly symbolic, metaphorical, colorful – even lurid – dream of those who are oppressed, a message of hope for those who saw nothing but the promise of death and despair in their futures.
In his Revelation, John reveals the promise of God, the promise that not even death can prevent God from carrying us into eternity, welcoming us into a neverending Kingdom where Death is no more, where mourning and crying and pain are no more. A kingdom being built here and now, a Kingdom where the wall between the here an the hereafter is no more. God is already doing the work, we know we do not need to make vows or sacrifices, as our ancestors did, to bring it about.
Yes, those we love have gone on ahead of us. And on this day we remember them, remember the love, relive the memories, feeling again the goodness, the joy, and the pain, the good times and the bad, that were in their lives on this earth as much as all of that is also in ours.
But, they have gone beyond that horizon which we have not yet crossed. A horizon we know we will have to cross, someday, too: a horizon that will cease to exist once God’s plan is complete. We don’t know how we’ll get there, nor when, but we will. And when we do, we will be welcomed into the arms of our loving God, receiving water, says John, as a gift from the spring of the water of life, and the tears in our eyes will be wiped away forevermore. Solomon says it is a place where no torment will ever again touch us.
And in this world’s future, we will be remembered too, as those who came before us are being commemorated here this day, and as we will in turn be commemorated in time to come.
Even when human memory fades, and the name on our gravestone erodes away, and our face is remembered for the last time (as will inevitably happen) we still will not be forgotten, because the Love that is so deeply a part of God’s nature can never be set aside, never forgotten. It is a love that is destined to embrace each of us for all eternity.
Rejoice, for God’s Kingdom is already here, within us, and being made a reality for all through the work of the Holy Spirit. Rejoice that the barrier that separates us from those whom we love is only temporary. God’s plan to forever eliminate the barriers that separate us from each other and from God is a plan that is already being enacted, and we are promised that it will be completed out of God’s love for us.
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)