Pumpkins, cornstalks, candy, spider webs, bats, skeletons, tombstones, chains, hands reaching out of the ground, bloody knives . . . these are just a few of the things I found when I moved into my office this summer. No, thankfully not, this is the stuff of Halloween. My guess is that many of us have mixed feelings about this season. The dressing up, the connections we make with our neighbours, the reminders of our own mortality—these all seem like fine things. But the obsession with violence, the fascination with death and horror and fear—these things are harder to welcome.
In 2009 Andy Crouch, journalist, editor and musician, published an interesting book on Christianity and culture. It was called Culture Making. Crouch observes that in North America Christians of various stripes are pretty good at approaching the broader culture in one of three ways. First, some of us try to separate ourselves from the larger culture. I suppose we could think of this as a ‘conservative’ response: condemn and avoid Halloween entirely. Second, some of us just ingest whatever the water of our culture brings our way. Our tastes and involvements are no different from those who don’t share our faith. We could call this a ‘liberal’ response: participate like everyone else, mindlessly consume. Third, some of us play the critic. Realizing that the like-it-or-lump-it choice is too severe, we analyze, pick and choose. At its best this last approach allows us to affirm what brings life and what fits with the triune God and to avoid or criticize what is destructive. There is much within the normal way of things that doesn’t make for peace or for flourishing. But what Crouch observes, and I think this is pretty insightful, is that none of these strategies are particularly effective at changing our culture. They are all reactive, useful as occasional gestures maybe but not helpful as a regular posture.
What Crouch encourages us to do is to embrace a different approach, that is, to make the cultivation and creation of culture our posture of engagement. We obviously aren’t talking about creating a new culture from scratch, but the act of developing and making those things that make up a culture: films, festivals, fiction, fraternal organizations—those sorts of things. Things that speak truthfully about the world, and truthfully about the human condition, and truthfully too about the transcendent. Against the stereotype some Mennonite have been pretty good at this: a few authors come to mind, as does an institution like Ten Thousand Villages. The idea is just this: instead of simply avoiding, consuming or playing the critic, we jump in and make something better. Instead of just criticizing bad films, we make better ones. The roots of this constructive view of cultural engagement go way back to Genesis, where Adam is asked to name the animals. God is in favour of human cultures. Crafting things, developing institutions, adding to the vitality of creation is part of the human calling.
Surprisingly enough, Halloween itself is an example of this constructive engagement. Many of you probably know this already, but the celebration of Halloween is rooted the observance of All Hallows Eve, the night before the celebration of the Saints (those who were ‘hallowed’). In turn, All Saints Day originated from the early Christian practice of remembering those martyred for their faith. Such lists lengthened quickly and in about the fourth century the church began to remember them collectively. To do so the church reshaped and redeemed older pagan festivals that commemorated the power of death. It was during the eighth century that Pope Gregory III fixed the date for Western Christianity in the current season. This is part of spiritual ancestry of both Protestants and Catholics: the Reformation wouldn’t happen for almost another eight hundred years.
The celebration of All Saints Day is a good idea; contemporary Christians should re-claim it. It’s a good example of “culture making.” For one thing, we need these highpoints in our calendars. Most of us have drifted away from the recognition of the Christian calendar. In its place we’ve adopted a secular view of time as an unending reel of generic days, one after another, divided up just so we can get more things done and keep the economy rolling along. So too we’ve bought into secular attempts to fill the void: holidays created to stoke nationalism and the market for greeting cards. These vague rises in the calendar aren’t designed to bring us closer to God but to extract our loyalty and lighten our wallets. We need good celebrations to knit us together as communities, church as well as neighbourhood, and to draw us to God. For ancient Christians the highpoints of the calendar bent and warped time: they drew the communion of saints together and to Christ.
But why this specific celebration? Why does it make sense to remember the saints in this way? Let me draw our attention to two of the assigned biblical texts read to us earlier. The first was from Isaiah 25. Here’s verse 6:
“On this mountain (Zion) the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, a rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
That sounds pretty good, at least it’s supposed to. Our relationship with bone marrow may have changed a bit, but the author is intending to evoke a sense of rich, sumptuous celebration. It’s important to realize that for classic biblical readers ‘Zion’ had at least a dual meaning: it indicated both to the historic city of Jerusalem and the eventual, new Jerusalem. So the image of Isaiah 25:6 is of a grand reception, the living and the dead, eating and drinking together. It’s a reunion. Our second reading places this in broader, eschatological context.
The grand sweep of the biblical drama describes human creatures as having their origin in blessed community or shalom. It describes too the current human condition marked by the rupture in our relationship with God, each other and creation. Finally, it describes proleptically the restoration of right relationship and blessed community. Here’s how Revelation 21:2-5a describes that reunion (maybe given the season we should refer to the book by its spookier title, the ‘Apocalypse’ of John):
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
John encourages his readers to anticipate a time when the power of death is finally vanquished, a time when we dwell peaceably with God and with each other. So part of the reason for celebrating the saints is the fact that we anticipate this beautiful reunion.
It isn’t just a future reunion though. Scripture suggests that those who have passed away in Christ are still a part of the Christian community today. Hebrews 12 speaks of a great “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us even now. The end of Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, nothing in creation, not famine or persecution, not even death itself can separate us from Christ. Think of what that means: if even death can’t separate us from Christ, then the saints, just like us, are presently joined to him. We remain one community.
When our churches receive new members we are thankful for the arrival of these individuals. They are each gifts from God. We rejoice too because this is a sign of the great, mystical reception we anticipate. We act today in the knowledge that we will one day eat alongside the saints. We will feast alongside those united to God in Christ, maybe our loved ones who have passed away, maybe one of our ‘enemies’. Or maybe we will eat alongside the revered martyr Perpetua. Do you know about Perpetua? She was a young, upper-class woman from the early part of the third century who was killed on account of her faith. She gave up the privilege that came from her family and died alongside slaves. So you might eat next to her, or maybe next to one of those early Anabaptists, or maybe even next to a so-called ‘average’ Christian today—a relatively poor woman from central Africa (‘average’ in geography, gender and wealth).
On All Saints Day we celebrate Communion in remembrance of Jesus and in the hope of this future feast, one with well-aged wine, rich food and great company. We eat now with each other, with our new members and mystically with the dead. Let us feast with the saints. It is, after all, their day.