The secularized celebration of Halloween reflects the waning influence of a Christian worldview in the West. However, it also presents an opportunity for Catholic Christians to do what we have always done, live like missionaries in our own culture.
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - As I was writing this article my grandson knocked on my door. I did not turn away from the laptop computer because I was trying to concentrate. He called out in a deep voice "Poppi" - the endearing name he has called me since he learned to speak.
I turned around quickly and saw this wonderful little boy dressed up as his favorite super-hero, the "Incredible Hulk". Having been engaged by him in numerous discussions this past week as to who would win in a battle between Hulk and another super-hero, I knew that his dear mother had just made this Halloween special.
Now pushing sixty, I became almost as excited as I did when I was a child and preparing to participe in Halloween. His anticipation of visiting neighbors and receiving candy, dressed up like the "incredible Hulk", became the subject of a lengthy and humorous conversation.
He ran around the house for an hour dressed up like the Hulk. I delighted as he entered into that wonderful world of childhood play. All this week I have had the joy of listening to him share his excitement about Halloween.
He and his mom, our dear daughter, live with us. I should say we all live with him - given his ability to "occupy the turf" of our home with the amazing little world he has built under our roof. He always reminds me of the gift of childhood, a gift we should never lose.
He has completely transformed our home and our life together. Family is a way of life and, when it is lived as a domestic church, it can be a source of real grace and conversion. It is also meant to become naturally supernatural.
Our grandson will soon be six years old. As the years have passed I realize that he is keeping my dear wife and me from "getting old" in the wrong way. He is a continual invitation to us to keep life simple and receive every day as a gift. We raised five children of our own and have six grandchildren.
The term "Halloween" is derived from "All Hallows Eve", the Christian Vigil of the celebration of the Christian Feast of "All Saints". Tomorrow evening I will serve as a deacon at the altar for the Vigil Mass of All Saints day. The beautiful readings will point us toward the perfection of the Saints in heaven and encourage us to become saints in our own journey here on earth through living the words of Jesus in the beatitudes.
Like many Catholics and other Christians I am concerned that the secularized celebration of "Halloween", with its undue influence on goblins, ghosts and the demonic, reflects the waning influence of the Christian worldview in the West. However, it also presents an opportunity for Catholic Christians to do what we have always done, live like missionaries in our own culture.
Particularly during this Year of Faith I suggest we consider how the Church has transformed cultures throughout her history- and do the same. The Church has always recognized that cultural practices can be "mixed", containing those aspects which elevate the human person and those which do not.
Members of the Catholic Church are invited to transform cultural practices from within through our proper participation. That has been our missionary model for over two millennia.
Many of the dates on the calendar which were "Christianized" and now host Christian "Holy-Days" were originally utilized for "Pre-Christian" ("Pagan") celebrations. This process reflects the wisdom of the Church and her faith based missionary approach. She "baptized" them, recognizing the seeds of what was good and true within them.
By immersing them in the beauty of the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate - who is the fullness of truth and the source of all goodness - she turns them into vehicles for transforming culture by infusing them with the values of the Kingdom which Jesus inaugurated.
The Church is the Body of Christ. She is meant to become the home of the whole human race. As the early fathers were fond of proclaiming, the Church is the world reconciled - the world in the process of transfiguration. We who live our lives now in the Church do so for the sake of the world.
We should not be afraid of human culture; we are called to continue the redemptive mission of our Lord by transforming it from within as leaven in a loaf.
The early Christians always honored the dead and had a special devotion and affection for the martyrs. We have wonderful accounts like the Martyrdom of Polycarp from the middle of the second century which set forth the practices:
"Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps ".
The Liturgy was often celebrated over the bones of the "holy ones", the saints, who gave their lives in love for Love Himself; Jesus Christ the Savior. This is one of the origins of our practice of embedding relics in the altar to this day. Christians do not fear death. We view it with the eyes of faith as a change of habitation.
The dates of commemorating those who witnessed to the faith by their heroic lives and deaths varied as local communities honored local saints and martyrs. Over time, those Feast days became more universally accepted as the rhythm of the Church Year became more uniform.
The first account we have of honoring all the saints is from St Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373). The great Bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom (d. AD 407), set aside the first Sunday after Pentecost for this commemoration. The Church of the East still celebrates the Feast on that day.
In the Western Church the date may have originally been on that date but was moved to May 13th. There is some evidence that the move to November 1 came with Pope Gregory III (d. AD 741), and was likely first observed on November 1st in Germany.
The Feast of All saints is our family Feast Day - when we honor all those who have died, marked with the sign of faith, and gone on before us to be with the Lord. They now beckon all of us into the fullness of the communion of love.
The vigil of the Feast (the eve) came, in the English speaking world, to be known as "All Hallows Eve" or Halloween. While some consider Halloween to be "pagan" in origin it is actually the eve of this great Christian Feast of All Saints. Many of the customs which surround it reflect the Christian confidence in our triumph over death in Christ and our bold rejection of the claim that evil has any more power over us.
In a special way we commemorate all who have been honored by "canonization", the process wherein the Church has acknowledged their extraordinary lives of holiness and holds them up as models and intercessors. This wonderful celebration is grounded in the most ancient of Church teaching concerning the Communion of Saints.
The Church proclaims that death does not separate us any longer because it was defeated by Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:28) We affirm and celebrate our eternal communion in Him - and with one another - through the Holy Spirit. We honor all of our brothers and sisters, known and unknown, who are a part of that great cloud of witnesses to which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews attests. (Heb. 12:1).
Just as we pray for one another, so those who have gone on before us pray for us and are joined to us forever in that communion of love. This ancient and firm belief is attested to in the earliest writings of the Christian tradition.
For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) wrote: "We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition... (Catechetical Lecture 23:9).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this communion in these words: "Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness...They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us...So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped....as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself: We worship Christ as God's Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord's disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples (CCC # 956, # 957)
So, on the evening when kids throughout our neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods walk from door to door, collecting candy, my grandson, dressed like the "Incredible Hulk" will join them. I know that some of my readers have made a different decision about their own children or grandchildren. I respect their decision as well. Over the years that my wife and I were raising our children, we tried both approaches. As you can tell, one won the day.
When my grandson is done sorting through all of the candy and talking away about the events of the evening, I will make the sign of the cross on his forehead and pray a prayer which has developed over all those years my wife and I raised our own children:
"May the Lord bless you, fill you with His Holy Spirit, surround your bed with His Angels and give you peace." He will look at me as he does almost every night and ask me to repeat it again saying "surround your bed with His angels?" in a question format.
I cherish that question because it calls me to do all I can to help to form him in the Christian way of life. As for the growing pagan practices around us, I am not afraid. I will do all that I can to ensure that he will be a part of a new generation of those who, bearing the name Catholic Christian, do what Christians always do, bring about the conversion of Nations and cultures.
That is what it means to be a missionary Church. That is also why I use the term "Pre-Christian" to describe the state of the West - not "Post Christian". This is a new missionary age and there is a lot of work to be done. Let's embrace what is good in our culture - and transform what is not - in the way we celebrate Halloween. It is an invitation to Christian mission in the Year of Faith.
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