How appropriate that today's editorial
is essentially on Halloween.
And with that, a checking-in
on the perspectives we may hold
and where they come from.
Culture and belief shape so many things,
sometimes things we may not even be aware of anymore
because they happened before we were around,
yet still exist with us.
So, as I see the almost full (big) moon boasting its way
across the night sky in otherwise dry conditions,
I invite you into this space to read, reflect, and wonder,
to wonder about life, death, life after death, and life after life after death.
This week I dive deeper into what exactly all of this is
through the lens of the popular custom of Halloween,
and the perhaps lesser known All Saints and All Souls Day.
(Which just this morning,
I was wondering if I had made up one of those
since they sound so similar...)
I then take us on a tour de force
with theologian N.T. Wright
on death and life afterward
refracted through the lens of Christian spirituality
(and we'll see why death may actually be a welcomed state
rather than something to fear!).
And if you make it that far, you will happen across
a beautiful song by Tom Wuest
in his aptly named album Under the Shadow.
All Hallows Even or Evening, the phrase eventually becoming Halloween, has an interesting history and what follows is a very simplified version. In the medieval Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland, there were festivals around the end of harvest and before winter known as Samhain (summer's end). It was believed that the world's spiritual atmosphere thinned, allowing fairies and spirits to be more active in the world we occupy. The Celts believed that these beings needed to be pleased to ensure the survival of their animals and themselves in harsh winter conditions. So, to ward off the feared gods, they would dress up as them requesting food in exchange for giving the people good luck! (In general, the medieval period was known for its superstition, anxiety, and ethereal world compared to, say, our current modern rational one where everything is "scientific" and based on "fact.") Alongside this arose the term we understand as halloween, but ironically, it came from within the Christian tradition. All Hallows Even/Eve was the day before a marked occasion which remembered the hallows or saints within a spirit of hope, and candle light vigils were held to commemorate the dead. In short, we get the name halloween (All Saints Eve) from within Christian spirituality and the practice of dressing up from within a medieval Celtic worldview.
All Saints Day was a day that the early Christian church (that is, in the early centuries) marked to honor those that had departed from this time and space. From a doctrinal perspective, it unified two important matters that the early church believed: the resurrection of the body + the communion of saints. The focus on the body and its resurrection points to a distinguishing fact of genuine Christian belief as opposed to other previous understandings: the body matters, it will not simply be discarded and cheerfully flung off in hopes for the soul to finally be free and have a better future. The term saints here is to be understood as those that believed or believe in Jesus Christ and applies simultaneously to the living and the dead. Something that might come as a surprise. The Church is comprised of those that previously were living (and now simply exist in a different state than our current one) + those here on earth right now. It gets a little tricky when, within the medieval period, the Church leaders began to believe in a state called purgatory--a place immediately after death where the soul is "purged" from its sins before entering "heaven,"if heaven is thought of as the ultimate place for one who has been redeemed.
This idea of purgatory ushered in All Souls Day around the 10th century A.D. This was a day to pray for those in this place of bondage. At some point down the road, the Church leaders got the "wise idea" that they could issue passes for the dead if the loved ones would pay for them. These were known as sales of indulgences. (Who would want their departed ones to suffer agony?) So, people paid for these written passes in order that their loved ones would be spared. And others got angry. Really angry. A man by the name of Martin Luther nailed his treatise--against these Church practices--on the castle doors of his town in Germany in 1517. (During that time, there was little distinction between throne and altar, the castle was practically the church and the church the castle.) His letter was called Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences, and the timing was uncanny. It was on the eve of All Saints Day (Oct 31) which would, of course, be followed by All Souls Day soon after. This treatise was not only refuting the idea that these "passes" to bypass purgatory were needed, but also that there was no purgatory amongst other false teachings the Church was shelling out at that time. This action of Luther's did many things but two worth noting right now:
- The church lay people were encouraged to read their Bibles and know for themselves what God's word was (rather than hear about it from the altar--and hear about it in Latin, no one's native language anymore). With the advent of the printing press, this was possible and thus the Reformation really became a wildfire across Europe in the 16th century.
- And for those ever wondering about why Christianity has so many different denominations--this is part of the beginning of that--this act is credited for ushering in the Reformation as well as the beginning of the Protestant arm of the church which espouses the now further splits of Lutheran, Mennonite, Amish, Baptist, Evangelical traditions to name a few. (Splitting was part of its DNA and now it lives on.) As you can imagine, All Souls Day does not typically have a tradition of being celebrated within Protestant branch.
Now if you're wondering about the larger topic of death and life after life after death, here is what I understand within the Christian tradition. The format is in a mock interview with leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright who currently teaches at The University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The quotes are taken from his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
A note: Wright mentions Paul and the term the Eucharist. Paul was the best of the best in Jewish school and then in the leadership realm in the synogogue, until he had a direct encounter with Christ that blinded him for three days because Christ's light was so radiantly bright. His persecution of Christians changed overnight and all the manhunts stopped. (This is all documented.) He became the first theologian of Christianity and penned many letters that comprise the New Testament which urge different communities in Europe and parts of Asia to live with love, wholeness, and courage in Christ because it is Christ alone that empowers us to truly live from this place we want to but cannot otherwise on a deep, core level. The term Eucharist means drinking wine and bread to commemorate the Last Supper with Christ, also known as communion.
So, do we still mark the occasions of remembering the dead and what is the state after death and before the Christian belief of bodily resurrection?
"Though this is sometimes described as sleep, we shouldn't take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as 'being with Christ, which is far better.' Rather, sleep here means that the body is 'asleep' and in the sense of 'dead,' while the real person--however we want to describe him or her--continues.
This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is, as we have seen, the bodily resurrection. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called heaven, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn't call it that and uses the word heaven in other ways.
An important point follows from all this. Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the 'communion of saints.' They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist they are there with us, along with the angels and archangels. Why then should we not pray for and with them? The reason the Reformers and their successors did their best to outlaw praying for the dead was because that had been so bound up with the notion of purgatory and the need to get people out of it as soon as possible. Once we rule out purgatory, I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should--not that they will get out of purgatory but that they will be refreshed and filled with God's joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?"
Do you have any further thoughts of purgatory?
"Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere that it's the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some postmortem state, are the valley through which we have to pass in order to reach the glorious future. I think I know why purgatory became so popular, why Dante's middle volume is the one people most easily relate to. The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection from the present onto the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story, here and now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings that form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over."
It is crazy how history shapes us whether we acknowledge it or not. Do we still live with any other medieval ideas that have snuck into our concepts of relating to God?
"In particular, we should be very suspicious of the medieval idea that the saints can function as friends at court so that while we might be shy of approaching the King ourselves, we know someone who is, as it were, one of us, to whom we can talk freely and who will maybe put in a good word for us. The practice seems to me to call into question, and even actually to deny by implication, the immediacy of access to God througth Jesus Christ and in the Spirit, which is promised again and again in the New Testament. In the New Testament it is clear: because of Christ and the Spirit, every single Christian is welcome at any time to come before the Father himself. If you have a royal welcome awaiting you in the throne room itself, for whatever may be on your heart and mind, whether great or small, why would you bother to hang around the outer lobby trying to persuade someone there, however distinguished, to go in and ask for you? To question this, even by implication, is to challenge one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel...I urge those whose churches, like my own, have revived the practice of All Souls commemorations, not least those who find them pastorally helpful, to think seriously about the theology they are implicitly embracing and teaching. The two appropriate times for remembering the Christian dead, and for doing so in a way that expresses genuine Christian hope, are Easter and All Saints. To add other commemorations detracts from the meaning of those great festivals."