Death is a fact of life. When St. Francis of Assisi lay dying he said, “Welcome, Sister Death”. Tomorrow is Halloween – when we recognise that death is another creaturely thing in a world that will one day pass away. “I believe…in the communion of saints,” we say every Sunday in the Creed. The following day, the Feast of All Saints, is our family Feast day when we honour all those who have died, marked with the sign of Faith, and gone on before us to be with the Lord.
The term “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, with its undue influence on goblins, ghosts and the demonic, simply reflects the waning influence of the Christian vision in the West. It also 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 “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.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 1st November 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.
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.