Enter any large box emporium today and you may get a tad confused. The Baby Jesus and The Walking Dead get equal billing. Christmas carols mash up with The Monster Mash, and it is hard to tell the angels and the good witches apart. In this day and age, when the morning headlines are spooky enough and it seems almost providential The Exorcist took Washington, D.C., for its setting, the scary and the sacred appear more connected than ever.
Retailers long ago contrived the cross merchandising with Halloween and Christmas. Scare the consumer into believing only a Scrooge would ignore the ghost of Christmas “soon to come.” Add to the display the goblin of looming economic downturn and the “buy it while you can” demon sends us out the door with our buggies brimming over.
Actually, there is a rather fascinating connection between the scary and the sacred. More than a thousand years ago, Christianity was faced with a culture war that predated the birth Christ. The Druids in ancient Britain and France observed the end of summer with sacrifices to their gods. It was the beginning of their new year, and they believed that Samhain, the god of death, sent evil spirits afoot to attack humans, and their only means of escape was through doning costumes and disguising as evil spirits themselves.
Christianity urged the faithful to embrace a different perspective.
As early as the fourth century, there are records of a festival honoring the faithful departed. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Christians celebrated All Saints Day in May in Rome in the Christianized Pantheon. This glorious building still stands today to testify to how the sacred is born out of the secular. When the Pope took the temple over in 605, he dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and all believers who had died as martyrs to the faith. Once a pagan temple for Roman gods, now the Pantheon became a church dedicated to all the saints. The hole in its great dome forever proclaims how heaven and earth can be joined together.
Eventually, All Saints was moved on the calendar to Nov. 1 – closer to the harvest because the massive crowds who made the pilgrimage to Rome in May were so large that food supplies ran short. Referred to as All Hallow’s Day and preceded before by All Hallows Eve (Halloween), Oct. 31 should connect us to all those who have gone on before us, passing from the place of shadows into the place of light.
As in many churches around the world, on All Saints Day at Mann-Mize Memorial Church, we will light candles of remembrance and ring bells for those who have gone on before us. On that day, death and its accompanying fears that so filled our Halloween festivities are no more.
As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim reminded us in his The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, depicting our worst fears through goblins and spooks helps us address our fears of the unknown.
And so Halloween, set in the context of Christianity, points us to the truth that although evil is real and dangers do go bump in the night, there is a path through the maze to the place where there is everlasting light.
The Rev. Bernard Mason is pastor of Mann-Mize Memorial United Methodist Church and chaplain for Heartland Hospice.