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Celebrating 'All Hallows Eve' and the 'Feast of All Saints' in a Pre-Christian West
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'Halloween' comes from 'All Hallows Eve', the Vigil of the celebration of the Christian Feast of 'All Saints'.
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - I just tried to place my books down on the file drawer outside of my makeshift home office and had to move three carved smiling pumpkins out of the way. Our grandson and his mom, our daughter, live with us. I really should say we all live with him, given his ability to "occupy the turf" so to speak, with his toys and the amazing little world he has built. It ever reminds me of the gift of childhood. He has completely transformed our home. He will soon be three years old. He is a continual invitation to my wife and me to keep it simple. We raised five children of our own but have never achieved what people call the "empty nest" stage. They just seem to return home. Family truly is a way of life and, when lived as a domestic church, it is a source of real grace and conversion.
This year our grandson discovered a place he incessantly refers to in his adorable attempts at conversation as the 'punkin patch'. I have heard so many stories about his two trips with his mom to the "punkin patch" that I could probably write a book. He is looking forward to "trick or treating" with his mom in our neighborhood this year and his excitement is contagious! He has his little "Dash" costume ready. For my readers unfamiliar with who "Dash" is, he is the little boy from the family of Super Heroes in the movie "The Incredibles" who can run really fast. I have seen the video at least five times. The day he tried the costume on we watched him run all over the house with the kind of joyful abandon we sadly lose as we "grow up." So, pushing those pumpkins out of the way today to clear a spot for my books made me smile.
I hurriedly opened my laptop and read one of the news sources I often check, the UK "Daily Telegraph." I knew I wanted to write on the Feast of All Saints. A report out of Rome bore this headline "Vatican condemns Halloween as anti-Christian." However, a further read of the original source upon which the Telegraph reporter based his article in L'Observatore Romano, revealed a very different headline. The article in the Vatican paper was entitled 'The Dangerous Messages of Halloween.' The priest interviewed for the story warned that the celebration has sometimes been hijacked by occultism and encouraged parents to 'to be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death.' Good, sound advice for all of us.
"Halloween" comes from "All Hallows Eve", the Christian Vigil of the celebration of the Christian Feast of "All Saints". I contend that what it is becoming simply reflects the waning influence of the Christian vision in the West and presents an opportunity for Catholic Christians to do what we have always done, live like missionaries in our own culture. The Church has always recognized that cultural practices can be "mixed", containing those aspects which elevate the human person and those which do not. However, members of the Church are invited to transform such cultural practices from within through our proper participation. That has been the missionary model of the Church for two millennia.
Many of the dates 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 a missionary approach. She has "baptized" them, recognizing the seeds of what was good within them. By immersing them in the beauty of the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the fullness of truth and the source of all goodness, she transforms them into vehicles for transforming culture. The Church is His Body. She is meant to be 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 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.
The dates of commemorating those who witnessed with their heroic lives and deaths varied and 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. 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 because it was defeated by Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:28) We affirm and celebrate our eternal communion in Him through the Holy Spirit - and with one another. 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) writes: "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)
The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has come, 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 the 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. As we approach Halloween this year, let us heed the sound advice of the priest interviewed in the Vatican paper and "...try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death".
As for this grandpa, I can't wait to see what kind of candy my little grandson brings home. I look forward to seeing his smiling eyes and hearing those enthusiastic hard to understand sentences he will try to string together as he receives the gift of speech. When he is done sorting through the candy and talking away about the events of the evening, and after he is ready for bed, I will make the sign of the cross on his forehead. I will pray a prayer which developed over all those years my wife and I raised our 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 look forward to that request; it keeps me young and fills me with hope.
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, after all, what it means to be a missionary Church. That is 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 - and transform what is not - in the celebration of Halloween and use it as an invitation to Christian mission.
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