In Good Faith: Ghoulish Grin

blogger-image--1606360413In my latest In Good Faith column I write about Halloween and its Christian roots. Now pass the candy corn!

Ghoulish Grin

I have pumpkin carving issues. It’s gotten to the point where my family lets me carve the eyes, the nose, and the hole in the top but I’m not allowed to get within a Butterfinger’s length of the mouth. The scary grin is off limits because for the last couple of years I’ve mistakenly cut off the teeth and we’ve ended up with a toothless, geriatric Jack-O-Lantern. It’s not exactly spooky looking unless you’re hoping for a set of dentures in your Halloween candy bag or you have an irrational fear of Bart Simpson’s grandfather.

I actually like Halloween but I know some Christians don’t share my attitude — something about it being satanic in nature. I think it’s a lot of fun and not just because free candy is the best kind. Plus how can you say something is evil with so many devilishly cute kids running around with such joy?

But beyond the mounds of candy corn and fake spider webs, All Hallow’s Eve has Christian roots and is thus a great teaching opportunity. The day we dress up and trick-or-treat is steeped in the ancient Christian feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls Day. There’s a great tradition of mocking death — hence the ghoulish costumes — as we stand in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On All Saints’ Day (November 1) we remember the great saints of the church who have come before us in the faith and continue to inspire us — those “Big S” saints like St. Francis and St. Mary. On All Souls Day (November 2) we remember those whom we have loved and lost in our own lives — those “small s” saints like Uncle Frank and our sister Mary.

So whether you’re dressed up as Miley Cyrus or Ted Cruz, you’re participating in a ritual that transcends the surface plane of life, speaks to something deeper, and reminds us that we are all connected to one another in what Christians call the “communion of saints.” In other words, it’s mostly about our faith in God but the sugar high can’t help but contribute to the joy of the human-divine connection.

My boys are at the age where they’re torn between participating in a “childish” ritual and the allure of free candy. Whether they go out trick-or-treating on Halloween will likely be a game time decision based on what their friends are doing.

Unfortunately they’re now much too old for me to engage in one of the greatest scams going — trick-or-treating with an infant. I remember my eldest son’s first Halloween – he was four months old. We put him in a homemade strawberry hat someone had given us and I dressed all in white; together we were strawberries and cream. People thought Ben was so cute (they ignored me) they would fill up his bag with candy. Of course, since he was too young to eat it, I was forced to keep it for myself which meant that I was literally stealing candy from a baby.

As for me, sometimes after the rush of trick-or-treaters dies down I stand in the doorway with my toothless Jack-O-Lantern burning bright, reflecting on what was behind all those costumes that traipsed up the front steps. If you took away the masks and hoods and dyed green hair you’d find something greatly resembling a saint. I don’t mean that the saints we honor in stained glass ever rubbed soap on car windows or engaged in other ghoulish pranks, but they were all human beings just like you and me. They weren’t super-human, they were simply super humans who put  their faith at the very center of their lives.

I hope you enjoy the festivities this year and avoid the house I best remember as a kid — the neighborhood dentist who handed out toothbrushes instead of Twizzlers.


Rediscovering All Souls Day

Lost amid the post-Halloween sugar crash and the euphoria of All Saints’ Day, is the ancient Feast of All Souls Day. All Souls is like the forgotten and ignored middle child of the All Hallows Eve — All Saints’ — All Souls triumvirate. And that’s a shame.

One effect of this is that All Saints’ Day — and in particular All Saints’ Sunday (since people rarely get to church on the feast day itself) — has become a de facto All Saints’/All Souls celebration. We have so broadened the definition of a saint to include not just the martyrs and theologians of the early church, not just those who have demonstrated heroic faith in more contemporary times, but Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry may have been a swell guy — despite his unbearable political commentary at Thanksgiving dinner every year — but was he truly a saint?

I’m as guilty of this broadening as anyone. On All Saints’ Sunday we print up and read a necrology (fancy name for a list of dead people) as identified by parishioners. In this way we connect the great saints of the church to all the faithful departed whom we have known and loved and lost in our own day. There’s nothing wrong with this and there’s a whole lot right with this. But it marginalizes the day in the Church Year that is specifically set aside to honor these lesser known “saints” — All Souls Day.

Practically speaking, combining the two days makes sense. Even if you’re able to get a crowd out to your parish church on All Saints’ Day they likely won’t be coming back the next day for All Souls. And, yes, there are some wonderful Anglo-Catholic congregations that can pull this off, with full choir no less. Though I’d bet many of them have more people in the altar party than in the pews.

Many work with the combined All Saints’/All Souls approach by talking about Saints (capital “S”) and saints (lower case “s”). And this is a helpful clarifying tool. But I still think we miss something when we don’t separate these two concepts. The modern All Saints’ Sunday celebration holds the potential to dilute the impact of the great saintly heroes of the faith while subsequently elevating our own deceased loved ones to heights that would likely make them roll in their graves.

This combining for convenience actually has an earlier precedent. All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day were separate traditions in the church. The celebrations of regional saints became so complex over time that the church instituted a feast day for all of the saints in about 609. In the late tenth century, the Benedictine monks in Cluny moved the commemoration of the dead of their order to November 2, the day after All Saints’ Day. In the thirteenth century the Pope saw the wisdom of this and put this feast on the calendar of the entire Church so that All Saints’ and All Souls would be forever linked moving forward. At the time of Martin Luther, Reformers fused All Saints’ with All Souls and it was only relatively recently that the Anglican Church rediscovered the merit of marking both days. In the Episcopal Church calendar it is called both All Souls Day and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed and was first included with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The one place where All Souls Day is celebrated with great fervor is Central America. The Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a day set aside for families to honor their ancestors. Home altars are set up with Christian symbols and icons along with pictures of friends and relatives who have died and a great celebration ensues that honors both the living and the dead.

And isn’t that really what this time in the Church calendar is all about? Because of Christ’s victory, the barrier between the living and the dead has been trampled down. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s,” Paul writes to the Romans. Which means that we can celebrate life even in the context of death.

So rather than let All Souls Day continue to be buried (so to speak), I encourage you to embrace it; to remember your own loved ones who have left this mortal life. God loves them just as much as God loves us and just as much as those we honor as heroes of the faith.

I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.

– From the hymn “Lord of the Dance”


All Hallow’s to All Saints’

I was talking to a fifth grader in my neighborhood yesterday who was dressed up as a “Mardi Gras girl.” It was a great costume — wig, fancy mask, etc. If I saw her walking down Bourbon Street I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Just out of curiosity I asked her if she knew what Mardi Gras meant? She didn’t, so I took a quick moment to give her the background. When I mentioned the Church’s season of Lent she lit up and said “I’ve heard of that!” I didn’t get into the concept of penitence and Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights but putting Mardi Gras into the context of the season before Easter resonated at least a little bit.

Every Halloween I start thinking about how much this “Christian nation” has lost the religious roots of its own holidays. For a country that prides itself on the percentage of people who believe in God, we’re awfully forgetful sometimes. That’s not to say only observant, liturgical Christians should celebrate on All Hallow’s Eve. That would put a damper on the whole affair. But it would be nice if more people paid attention to the “why’s” of such holidays. As with much of life, without context there’s little meaning in anything we do.

In the case of Halloween, it exists only because it’s the night before the great Feast of All Saints’, the day Christians throughout the world remember the saints who have come before us in the faith. And this fact gets lost amid the Halloween displays at those temporary costume shops that pop up faster than Starbucks franchises.

In isolation, Halloween has no meaning – besides free candy and cute kids in ghoulish garb. Which is a fine thing in itself. And it’s all in good fun, unless your house gets egged.

But beyond the Twizzlers and Snickers Bars and zombie costumes, it’s a pretty empty experience unless it’s connected to something deeper. In other words, it’s all about context. We dress up in costumes to mock death; that’s the history of this practice. And it comes out of the bedrock belief of the Christian faith – that through his death on the cross Jesus has destroyed death. Death no longer has dominion over us, which means we can mock death because it has no power over us. That’s the essence of All Hallow’s Eve.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Now go buy another roll of dental floss.


Calling All Souls

Lost amid the post-Halloween sugar crash and the euphoria of All Saints’ Day, is the ancient Feast of All Souls Day. All Souls is like the forgotten and ignored middle child of the All Hallows Eve — All Saints’ — All Souls triumvirate. And that’s a shame.

One effect of this is that All Saints’ Day — and in particular All Saints’ Sunday (since people rarely get to church on the feast day itself) — has become a de facto All Saints’/All Souls celebration. We have so broadened the definition of a saint to include not just the martyrs and theologians of the early church, not just those who have demonstrated heroic faith in more contemporary times, but Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry may have been a swell guy — despite his unbearable political commentary at Thanksgiving dinner every year — but was he truly a saint?

I’m as guilty of this broadening as anyone. On All Saints’ Sunday we print up and read a necrology (list of dead people) as identified by parishioners. In this way we connect the great saints of the church to all the faithful departed whom we have known and loved and lost in our own day. There’s nothing wrong with this and there’s a whole lot right with this. But it marginalizes the day in the Church Year that is specifically set aside to honor these lesser known “saints” — All Souls Day.

Practically speaking, combining the two days makes sense. Even if you’re able to get a crowd out to your parish church on All Saints’ Day they likely won’t be coming back the next day for All Souls. And, yes, there are some wonderful Anglo-Catholic congregations that can pull this off, with full choir no less. Though I’d bet many of them have more on the altar than in the pews.

"All Souls Day" by William Bouguereau (1859)

Many work with the combined All Saints’/All Souls approach by talking about Saints (capital “S”) and saints (lower case “s”). And this is a helpful clarifying tool. But I still think we miss something when we don’t separate these two concepts. The modern All Saints’ Sunday celebration holds the potential to dilute the impact of the great saintly heroes of the faith while subsequently elevating our own deceased loved ones to heights that would likely make them roll in their graves.

This combining for convenience actually has an earlier precedent. All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day were separate traditions in the church. The celebrations of regional saints became so complex over time that the church instituted a feast day for all of the saints in about 609. In the late tenth century, the Benedictine monks in Cluny moved the commemoration of the dead of their order to November 2, the day after All Saints’ Day. In the thirteenth century the Pope saw the wisdom of this and put this feast on the calendar of the entire Church so that All Saints’ and All Souls would be forever linked moving forward. At the time of Martin Luther, Reformers fused All Saints’ with All Souls and it was only relatively recently that the Anglican Church rediscovered the merit of marking both days. In the Episcopal Church calendar it is called both All Souls Day and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed and was first included with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The one place where All Souls Day is celebrated with great fervor is Central America. The Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a day set aside for families to honor their ancestors. Home altars are set up with Christian symbols and icons along with pictures of friends and relatives who have died and a great celebration ensues that honors both the living and the dead.

And isn’t that really what this time in the Church calendar is all about? Because of Christ’s victory, the barrier between the living and the dead has been trampled down. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s,” Paul writes to the Romans. Which means that we can celebrate life even in the context of death.

So rather than let All Souls Day continue to be buried (so to speak), I encourage you to embrace it; to remember your own loved ones who have left this mortal life. God loves them just as much as God loves us and just as much as those we honor as heroes of the faith.

I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.

– From the hymn “Lord of the Dance”


Halloween Hauntings

My 2011 “Cross-O-Lantern”

In my latest “In Good Faith” column for the Hingham Journal I explore the connections between Halloween and All Saints’ Day including a “shout out” to Sleepy Hollow, New York and Salem, Massachusetts. Basically I’m trying to incite competition between the two communities as they vie for the title “Halloween Capital of the Universe.” May the spookiest town win.

IN GOOD FAITH

By the Rev. Tim Schenck

Halloween Hauntings

A couple of years ago, I took my two boys on a little Halloween field trip to the cemetery surrounding the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, New York. How could I not take advantage of living near what I used to think of as the Halloween capital of the world? We got to the cemetery at 5:30 pm, just as the sun was setting figuring that would add to the spooky factor. Just for the record, the gates officially closed at 4:30 so I guess technically speaking we were breaking and entering. I’ve always considered myself a great role model for my kids.

So there we were lurking around the old gravestones as it got darker and darker. I picked them both up to peek inside the window of the church and talk turned to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. One of our family traditions is to read the story of the Headless Horseman the week before Halloween. And since it all took place right around the Old Dutch Church I thought it would give them a bit of context to walk the ground upon which the Horseman allegedly trod.

But I admit I also had an ulterior motive: I wanted to link Halloween to All Saints’ Day. All Hallows Eve exists only because it’s the night before the great Feast of All Saints’, the day Christians throughout the world remember the great saints who have come before us in the faith. And this fact gets lost amid the Halloween displays at those temporary costume shops that pop up faster than Wes Welker after a devastating tackle.

Matching wits and colors with a young parishioner

In isolation, Halloween has no meaning – besides free candy and cute kids in ghoulish garb. Which is a fine thing in itself. And it’s all in good fun, unless your house gets egged or someone puts toothpaste on the door handle of your car. Something I surely never did as a teenager.

But beyond the Twizzlers and Snickers Bars and Harry Potter costumes, it’s a pretty empty experience unless it’s connected to something deeper. In other words, it’s all about context. We dress up in costumes to mock death; that’s the history of this practice. And it comes out of the bedrock belief of the Christian faith – that through his death on the cross Jesus has destroyed death. Death no longer has dominion over us which means we can mock death because it has no power over us. That’s the essence of All Hallows Eve. That’s the context; that’s the meaning.

It’s important to remember that we are connected to something beyond ourselves; a way of keeping our lives in the context of faith; a way that offers meaning and hope amid the changes and chances of our mortal existence; a context that brings to bear the mystery and meaning of the divine right here, right now. Those are the opportunities that present themselves in the holidays and holy days that mark our calendars.

Now that we live in New England we brought the boys up to that other Halloween capital of the world earlier this month: Salem. I’m not sure when this community stopped feeling shameful about its gruesome past and embraced the marketing and economic potential of its history. But I have never seen more witch kitsch anywhere in my life. And while it was fun to poke into some of the stores a few of them were genuinely frightening – the ones where they weren’t kidding about being witches.

Enjoy what retailers are calling “the other Christmas” this weekend. But I also encourage you to think about the deeper meaning of Halloween and its connection to All Saints’ Day. Making connections; giving context; expressing faith. It’s a work in progress for all of us.

When we came home for dinner after our illicit visit to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, we prayed for all those whose graves we visited and for those who have come before us in the faith. For Halloween that year, Zack decided to go as Jango Fett from Star Wars. Ben went with the then-first baseman for the Yankees Jason Giambi. And , yes, I realize that Ben’s costume would be seen as truly ghoulish for anyone in Red Sox Nation.


Father Fright

Father FrightWe have a new welcoming party at our house this year: Father Fright. He stands guard at the rectory as a beacon of right-living and paladin of piety. I do hope you’ll come by to meet him. If you dare. In the meantime, I’ve written a poem to honor his appearance at the Schenck household.

The boys have been rolling their eyes at my creation (the closest I’ll ever come to Dr. Frankenstein) but I think they’ve secretly been inspired by Father Fright: they’re both going as the Grim Reaper this year.

Father Fright 

Come and meet Father Fright,
One blameless in God’s sight.
He may look like bare bones
As he moans and he groans
But always fights the good fight.
 
Warm and fuzzy he’s not
With nary a soft spot
While he’s quite devout
His femur juts out
He cares not one tittle or jot.
 
His theology’s quite clear,
Though some tremble in fear:
“Repent now you loser!
God’s your accuser,
He’s not as nice as you hear.”
 
While he’s not the Grim Reaper
His grace ain’t much cheaper
The doctrine is simple:
To God you’re a pimple.
You be your brother’s keeper.
 
In the Valley of Dry Bones
He waits for all to atone
With bony hand raised
He stands there unphased
The devil he strives to dethrone.
 
His eyes blaze so bright
Each Halloween night
You may scream “egad!”
But in the end you’ll be glad
To have met Father Fright.

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