Halloween and the Clash of Religion

charlieBy Joe LaGuardia

For this week’s article, I researched the background of Halloween and All Saints Day.  After spending about an hour online, I found myself enjoying the research more than anything else because reading about these two holidays was like following Alice into that mysterious rabbit hole.  I didn’t know where I would end up.

It did not take long, however, before I discovered one simple truth about October 31: Halloween is a time in which various religious traditions clash and form a cultural quagmire of superstition and the sacred.  Allow me to explain.

Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday rooted in Druid and Celtic sects of Ireland.  It includes all of the superstitious beliefs for which Halloween is known, in particular the visitation by ghosts, spirits, the (un)dead, and the like on humanity’s earthly realm.  In the words of at least one online documentary, it was a time in which the season of life met the season of death, when the boundary between this world and the next became so thin, souls were able to venture to and fro.

The holiday also included celebrations for the summer harvest.  Since the days turned darker around autumn, the Celts celebrated the time of reaping the produce of the ground, storing foodstuffs in time for winter, and enacting religious rites to prepare for the upcoming months.   Halloween was a way of protecting these ancient tribesmen from that which haunted them in their darkest hour, namely famine or freezing or both.  They lit bonfires (now we light jack-o-lanterns) to ward off the dark and adorned costumes in order to fool evil spirits.  Creepy stuff for sure.

When the Catholic Church stumbled upon all things Halloween in the fourth century, the Church found many of those Celtic practices unacceptable for obvious reasons.  Pope Boniface IV stripped the holiday of all its pagan practices (the Catholic Church did the same for Saturnalia, which became Christmas, and Eoaster, or Easter) and replaced it with All Saint’s  or All-Hallow’s (all holy) Eve.

To this day, Christians celebrate All Saint’s Day on November 1.

That’s a long story made short, but there’s more.  Protestant Reformers in Germany came along and preferred neither Halloween nor All Saints Day.  Instead, they made October 31 Reformation Day.

Since many people in the United States are not willing to worship on October 31 because of all the Halloween hype, many churches simply dedicate the Sunday before Halloween as Reformation Sunday and the Sunday after as All Saints.

If you’re courageous, you can use this week as an excuse to worship twice.  Take our brothers and sisters at Epiphany Lutheran Church helmed by a new pastor, the Reverend David Armstrong-Reiner, for example: They celebrated Reformation Sunday last Sunday (no good Lutheran would miss it!), and they will celebrate All Saints tomorrow evening around 7 PM (call the church to confirm the time).  Now that’s a worship-filled congregation right there!

Suffice it to say, the last week of October is one in which many faith traditions intersect.  You may be a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or a Protestant, but we all hold something in common today: it is a time to remember the heroes and heroines of our faith.

You may choose to remember the pillars of the Church—Martin Luther, St. Patrick, or Mother Teresa to name a few.  Or you can choose to remember someone more personal: Grandma and Grandpa whose faith sparked your own belief in Jesus, or you may champion your old youth pastor who might have been a catalyst for your salvation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering and celebrating the lives of our saints.  Even God is big on remembering the ancients; in the Old Testament He declared repeatedly that He is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

You may call today what you will—Halloween, All Saint’s Eve, Reformation Day, or just another good, ole’ Friday night—but at least be sure to thank God for giving us saints whom we can remember, admire, and cherish in our hearts.

A version of this article was originally published on Baptist Spirituality in October of 2009.

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St. Patrick and the need for forgiveness

irish churchThis season, with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, a little journey I started four years ago will come to a close as I graduate with my doctor of ministry degree. This timing is appropriate because some of my doctoral research concentrated on St. Patrick and how God’s call carried him as a missionary into the heart of Ireland.

The mere mention of St. Patrick usually brings to mind certain symbols affiliated with his holiday: green shirts, four-leaf clovers, leprechauns and beer. We forget, however, that St. Patrick is a saint. He made a difference in history that we often overlook.

St. Patrick was one of the first missionaries to Ireland, a land inhabited by pagan Celts and Druids. Not much is known about these people groups because they did not keep written records; theirs was an oral culture that thrived on storytelling, song and memorization. It was a place enshrouded in mystery, a land from whence fairies and unicorns came.

How St. Patrick got to Ireland in the first place is the most compelling part of this story: While Patrick was still young, Celtic raiders captured him and sold him into slavery in Ireland.

He was enslaved as a sheep herder, and the laborious work inspired him to lean on his Catholic faith for daily encouragement. Legend has it that he uttered hundreds of prayers a day in order to cope, fulfilling Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.”

He escaped and sought to put the whole episode behind him. He reunited with his family and made his way back to his hometown of Wales, but God had other plans for him.

Despite the hardships he faced, St. Patrick heard God calling him back to Ireland in order to share the Gospel. Patrick, along with numerous missionaries who followed in his footsteps, went about converting all of Ireland. It did not take long before the Druidic priests exchanged their Stonehenge altars for stained-glass cathedrals.

If there is any lesson to learn this season, it is that forgiveness trumps personal vengeance. Here we have Patrick, whom raiders captured and sold into slavery. He barely escaped with his life; then, God called him right back to the place where he suffered on a regular basis.

In order to pursue such a task, Patrick had to forgive his captors before he saw them as potential converts.

Sure enough, by God’s grace, Patrick saw beyond his own earthly, limited vision and understood the larger redemptive history that was at work around him. He joined God by participating in that history and achieved sainthood along the way.

God had affected Patrick’s life profoundly, and it appears that Patrick believed that forgiveness was not merely a choice, but an obligation. He believed that no person, no matter how deeply engaged in sin, was out of God’s reach. God resided in everyone; it was just a matter of letting people recognize God’s presence in their life and respond accordingly.

A prayer attributed to St. Patrick, also known as the “Breastplate Hymn,” expresses this belief and is quite fitting for a society in need of the power of God’s forgiveness:

“Inapprehensible we know you, Christ beside us; with earthly eyes we see men and women, exuberant or dull, tall or small. But with the eye of faith, we know you dwell in each. You are imprisoned in the fiend and the drunk; dark in the dungeon, but you are there. You are released, resplendent in the loving mother … the passionate bride, and in every sacrificial soul.”

For Patrick, the Celts worshiped God already; it was just that they did not know it was the God of Israel, incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who offered them forgiveness for their sins — just as Patrick had forgiven them.