YOU CAN’T (ALWAYS) BE SERIOUS!
October 31, 2010
We’re always saying: “Get into the spirit of . . .” (whether it’s Christmas, Bay Days or football season).
Lately, we have been encouraging the people of St. John’s to get into the spirit of major religious festivals, and in this case, to come to church dressed up and ready to celebrate. It’s not hard to get into the “spirit” of Halloween. Traditionally, Halloween is a deeply spiritual event, with much focus on ghosts or spirits, ghouls and demons (with bats, witches and spiders as minor characters). Many people once believed that the barrier between this world and the spiritual dimension became very thin at this time of year. The stuff of nightmares and our darkest fears was somehow addressed and perhaps placed in better perspective by facing it and even having fun with it.
The Christian Church instituted the festival of All Saints in the early 7th Century, acknowledging the countless people who had lived exceptional lives of faith but had no specific saint’s day to commemorate them. When we are tempted to lament that there’s not enough good people in the world, All Saints reminds us there are too many to count. The day before All Saints (or All Hallows) became known as All Hallow’s Eve(ning), later compressed to Hallowe’en.
From the 5th Century until probably the 16th Century, Europeans had a huge gala called the Feast of Fools. Probably deriving from the Roman festival Saturnalia, it was typically a short term event (usually a day but sometimes as much as a week, early in the New Year) in which people pretended that the social order was turned upside down, and temporary licence and departure from the norm prevailed.
In that highly structured and hierarchical society, youngsters or people from the underprivileged orders of society would be elected to be dressed up as the bishop or even the pope, and called the Lord of Misrule, or Archbishop of Dolts or some other facetious title. Others would wear masks and disguises, and the frivolity and mockery and misbehaviour was at times so excessive that the Church was often obliged to caution people to “clean up their act.”
It was an irony that people of the Middle Ages apparently understood all too well. In the New Testament Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the way of Christ was accused of turning the world upside down, but over time the Church gradually became very conventional and ensconced in the status quo. Yet it says something about the Church at that time that such dramatic expressions were allowed – again, over about a thousand year period.
The festival differed from place to place, but apparently there were aspects of the festival that took place in the church, with one piece of it acted out during the singing of the Magnificat (Song of Mary), with particular attention paid to the line “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” The Lord of Misrule or appointed festival leader supposedly would repeat the line a number of times for good effect. It was one of the ways that the Church of that time acknowledged the sometimes embarrassing gap between the Jesus we proclaim and the faith we practise.
Such expressions provided a healthy corrective, recalling people to a more genuinely Christian way of ordering things. In a similar way, Halloween reminds us that it’s good to shake things up now and again, and that it’s good to be able to poke fun at ourselves. St Paul spoke of the willingness to put off our stuffy sense of self-importance and to embrace the counter-intuitive, apparently foolish wisdom of the Gospel.
By the 16th Century, the Church was a deadly serious institution: the Reformation was threatening its unity, the Inquisition was in effect, religious wars were about to break out, and of course, the emerging Protestants were way too sober and earnest ever to allow such frivolity. So the practice as such died out. But you only have to look at the popularity of Halloween and our fascination with vampires and horror movies to know that people need that opportunity from time to time to step out of the ordinary and mundane and engage another dimension.
T.S. Eliot said “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
Some well-meaning Christians have fretted about blurring the lines between bad and good, holy and evil. Well, life is like that: complicated and ambiguous! In our death-denying and fear-driven society, I happen to think Halloween can serve a very helpful function for Christians, as well as those who don’t embrace the Gospel.
Halloween is an outlet, a socially sanctioned way of venting deeply felt but unexpressed aspects of life, allowing people an occasion to explore the dark and mysterious in a harmless way, and acknowledging (and even embracing) hidden dimensions in ourselves and life in general. I always find it interesting that, given any opportunity, certain guys love to dress up as women. In recent times the Pride Parade has allowed a whole segment of the population to express itself and in doing so it too reveals something of the rich variety of life that we usually keep well hidden.
Halloween is a time when your hidden Cleopatra or Elvis or Saint Jerome has a chance to come out and play. I sometimes think if Wall Street bankers or Bay Street lawyers would dress as pirates all the time, and our politicians as clowns, we would be able to relate to them a lot better. It’s not just a case of Mr Dress Up or playing Barbies for children and adults alike. In putting on a costume, we are not necessarily hiding who we are but revealing something, as the Church does when it dresses bride and groom up (and in some cases places crowns on their heads) at weddings; as Christian parents do when they have a christening gown for their baby; as clergy do when they don ceremonial robes to celebrate the Eucharist (it’s ALWAYS Halloween for us!).
Children love dressing up and entering into the imagination and creativity and fantasy of this festival. Disney and the Muppets and countless cartoons attest to the value of engaging that side of things. As SpongeBob Squarepants said: “When you use your imagination, you can do anything!” Play and the freedom of spontaneity are essential to children’s development, and, as Jesus taught, woe to the adult who loses touch with that ability to engage the playful and child-like. The ability to re-visit and express that side of ourselves may be said to have wholistic effects. In a world all too eager to sideline Santa and trash the Tooth Fairy, I think we need some areas of life that remain open to the rich world of imagination, fantasy and possibility, and not nailed down by boring definitions and explanations.
C.S. Lewis, commenting on the modern tendency to want to shield children from disturbing stories and images, said, “By confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happened, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make [the terrors] endurable.”
Why do people love going to horror movies? When I was 12 or 13, I attended a movie called Horror at Party Beach. My parents were away at the time, and the lady who was staying with us awoke in the morning to discover me sleeping on the floor beside her bed! That movie really got to me! Years later, my son, about three at the time, came into the bedroom and said “I believe in monsters and I think there’s one under my bed.” I went into his bedroom with him, turned on the light, got down and swept my arm under his bed and encouraged him to take a look for himself. We all have our monsters to deal with in life and it’s good to learn that you have it within you to face them and overcome their hold on you.
Ever dress up as a cowboy or a gunslinger? I did. I have always loved Westerns, and there is something magical about that key moment when the hero is called out into the street for a showdown. It’s a call is to step out into a dangerous but potentially glorious place, to confront truly serious issues – issues of life and death. To refuse the call is to deny your true nature, to stifle your own destiny, and to allow fear to keep you immobilized and powerless.
When the call comes to us (and I’m not talking about fighting now), when we perceive ourselves being summoned out or challenged to rise to a key moment, there is in us someone who wants to stand up and be counted, someone who doesn’t shrink back into the shadows, but pushes open that doorway of opportunity, walks boldly out, and engages that challenge, despite the risks.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls two people out, and both of them shrink from it, refusing to depart from safety and familiarity. Faith, and the call to act on it, is just too much for many people. It is one of the main tasks of the Church to challenge and change that, and encourage people to step out in faith. To Spirit-led people, to remain forever cowering within the confines of safety, under the shelter of family and absorbed by the comfort of habit, would be a veritable “Night of the Living Dead” scenario. As some wise person observed, death is not the tragedy; the tragedy is never to have lived.
We all have to step out there into the big, bad world, and in moving across that threshold of fear, and letting go of familiarity, we come to know it’s not really bad at all – our fears always tend to magnify the problems and make the darkness seem overly dangerous. Halloween is about confronting our demons, facing our fears, and finding our way about in the darkness (or through it). This could be taken just as childhood games and agendas, or we could see it as something deeply spiritual in nature, and having to do with some of the most important inner work we do in life.
Every Sunday, I dress up, wearing robes that identify me as a Christian priest. It’s not just play-acting; it’s not just fantasy – it is an act deeply symbolic, meant to connect us with deep truths and mysteries that liberate us from the mundane and help us participate in something sublime and transcendent.
I have thought for a long time that I’m like the one person who shows up at the party in a costume. Today, with all the people in costumes, I don’t feel so aloof and apart. If someone shows up at a wedding dressed in a sloppy t-shirt and jeans, it’s considered an insult, so I wonder what church would be like if each Sunday, we not only put on our usual Sunday clothes, but actually had ceremonial robes as well, to better celebrate the great Good News of life in Christ. That would seem to be a way to invite everyone into the celebration as fellow celebrants and a way of expressing the idea of the priesthood of all believers that the New Testament talks about.
May Halloween and the festival of All Saints help us to realize we are all saints – that we have it in us to be more than we may assume ourselves to be.
1Corinthians 2: 12–16 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.* Those who are unspiritual* do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. 15Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’But we have the mind of Christ.
Lk 9: 57—62 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus* said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’