So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Observing the fervent celebrations of Halloween, an anthropologist studying American culture might add a line in a learned paper:

The eve of All Saints and All Souls remains one of the great folk religious customs that unifies the otherwise fractious and quarrelsome North Americans. 

A little history

The weekend of November 1st  All Saints-All Souls marks a cultural event that has deep religious roots, the significance of which seems lost to most of the population who celebrate it. All Saints-All Souls is one of those thin places, a term from Celtic spirituality identifying a transitional space in time. Thin places can also be locations of place. Glastonbury and Stonehenge are two of many English examples. The commemoration of All Saints-All Souls constitutes a thin place in time opening a strange window into our popular culture, through which flow two great pagan religious traditions, one European, the other Mezzo-American, both with deep roots predating Christianity. All Saints- All Souls is the Christianization of the pagan Celtic Halloween. The great Latino celebration of  Día de los Muertos, similarly is the Christianization of the Aztec dia-de-muertosgoddess Mictecacihuatl, that center of a tradition of ancestor worship.

The significance of both these celebrations lies in the eruption of ancient pagan folk religion, which like all folk religion lies buried underneath the brittle carapace – the hard shell of Christianity. On the 1st and 2nd of November each year, the dead-hand of both Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy is shattered by the eruption of deep pagan currents running in the subterranean rivers of the collective unconscious of both Anglo and Latino cultures.

On Friday night, Al and I were FaceTiming with our 10-year-old granddaughter who was modeling for us her Cinderella costume including a long blond wig that completely transformed her appearance in preparation for her trick or treat escapades. Little does she know that the popular practice of trick or treating owes its origins to the great Celtic

Photo:Copyright JOE;CONLON;ATHBOY;;;

celebration of welcoming the transition of the seasons from autumn to winter. On Samhain, the door to the other world opened and feasts were prepared for the souls of the dead. Like our children today, our forebears protected themselves from harmful spirits by disguising themselves with weird and wonderful costumes and painting their faces into grotesque caricatures to hide their true identities from the evil spirits.

Following the English reformation, the celebration of Halloween was discouraged. For the English, the need for a lively celebration at this time of year was transferred to 5th November, the commemoration of Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes or bonfire night celebrates with bonfires and fireworks another cultural form of vanquishing of demons, this time the Papist demon Guy Fawkes and his Jesuit friends, who failed in their attempt to blow-up the Houses of Parliament during a visit of the King, James I. Incidentally, on that occasion of the King’s visit to Parliament, intended by the conspirators to be his last, one Roger Williams, secretary to the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Coke, accompanied his patron among the courtiers and officials in attendance on the King that day. In place of trick or treating, English children used to go from house to house carrying a straw effigy of Guy Fawkes. As householders opened their doors they were greeted with the cry not of trick or treat, but of penny for the guy.

Among the Puritans who settled in this part of America, the celebration of Halloween was strictly forbidden because of its demonic overtones. It seems the popularity of Halloween takes root in America among the millions of later Scots and Irish immigrants who, in their own part of the British Isles, had refused to abandon the old Celtic festival.

Our human nature

Human Nature expresses itself through culture. Our cultures are punctuated with small openings which allow expression of deeper psycho-spiritual needs.  We need these openings to illuminate what otherwise becomes the mind-numbing monotony of the here and now.

In the 1789 and 1928 editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the prayers of intercession bat309470were introduced with the words: Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church, Militant here in earth.

That odd word militant refers not to aggression but to you and me. We are the Church Militant – the Church on the march in the world.Yet, we are not the whole Church. We are only the Church active in this world. The whole Church includes two other states, traditionally referred to as the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. This is the vision of the three-tiered universe, an inspiration that draws from the imagery of the Book of Revelation, from which the epistle reading for All Saints is taken.

The endurance of the pagan roots of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, as vibrant contemporary expressions of popular culture, give testament to the human need, from time immemorial, to hope for more than the idea that life is this world is all there is.

In abandoning the medieval imagery of the Book of Revelation, let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The division between All Saints and All Souls expresses our deep human psycho-spiritual need to build meaning in the face of the reality of death. All Saints is a celebration.

Through remembering the great exemplars of Christian living, we celebrate a joyful expectation of our continued life in God. Yet, in the face of death we experience sorrow, loss, bewilderment and pain as those we have loved are no longer physically present to us. All Souls expresses this element of human need. Our hearts still reach out for those we have lost. Our hearts open in the urgency of prayer for those who are still achingly loved and yet no longer present to us.

Love and a sense of continued relationship compels us to pray for our loved ones, who comprising the visions of a Church Expectant wait in the hopeful expectation of their fulfillment. A sense of need likewise compels us to seek the prayers of the saints and Saints, whose love and support we implore having already attained the joy of paradise in the Church Triumphant. For we are all united in one Church through the timelessness of relationship now lived out through prayer – uniting militant, expectant and triumphant states of being.

What of Scripture?

imagesThe gospel for All Saints is the story of the Raising of Lazarus from John’s Gospel. This is a powerful story in which the themes of faith and grief are linked together. Jesus confronts Mary and Martha with the need to trust, to risk a leap of faith. He asks them to trust and believe in something greater than surface appearances. It seemed to them their brother was dead. In the face of the human grief that accompanies death, we see the deep humanity of a Jesus disturbed by grief and sorrow. It seems that grief and faith are not incompatible, but complementary.

In the Gospel story of the Raising of Lazarus, God shows us that death is only a biological event, not a human event! Biology ends because it is a condition of life in the Church Militant. Contrastingly, being human is a continuous event that transcends the event of biological death, spanning between the dimensions of militant and expectant life.

Human life is a process of journeying into the fulfillment of God’s Covenant made with us in Christ. This is a promise that our humanity is more than an accident of biology. It is nothing short of the promise of incorporation into the life of the divine community that is God. In the words of the Burial Service of the Book of Common Prayer

For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.


One thought on “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

  1. In the 21st century, journey is a dying metaphor for what lies in front of one who truly seeks God. It has devolved into Newspeak.

    I believe “adventure” provides the proper context. Adventure is defined as (1) an exciting or very unusual experience, (2) participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises, (3) a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.

    The Saints were adventure tourists. God calls to become one of them.

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