30 Oct 2016
“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed …” (2 Thess 2:1-2)
In the name …
Tomorrow, everyone knows, is Halloween. The word Halloween comes from the Old English All Hallows Eve, which in turn comes from what we now call All Saints Day, the day of the hallowed ones. On All Saints Day we rejoice in the promise of eternal life with Jesus. It’s a Feast Day not about death and the dead, but about resurrection and all the saints in heaven. It’s a joyous Mass celebrating eternal life. Paul explains it nicely to those first generation Christians. Basically, he says that Jesus has taken death out of dying. Jesus died. He faced the reality of our mortality and the fear of what lies on the other side. Then He resurrects and everything changes. We become a people not bound by this world and these bodies. We become children of eternity. Now, Paul says, Jesus died, but we fall asleep. The obvious intention of his change of words is that after Jesus faces down the fear of dying and death, we now fall asleep to awaken in the next life. In this way, the terrifying fear of death is erased by the greater promise of life everlasting. Don’t get me wrong, dying is still no fun, but death doesn’t have to be terrifying. And again, this is what we will celebrate on All Saints Day, All Hallows Day.
But human nature won’t allow for this hope to be easy and this is where stuff like Halloween creeps in. We won’t let go of the fear of death even though we believe that Jesus came back after dying. This is completely understandable. We’re not a colony of ants or a hive of bees that sacrifices hordes of non-descript drones for the sake of the group and accept this as nothing more than the ordinary. This is why we honour those men and women who place themselves in harm’s way for others. Whether it be police officers or fire fighters, or our military veterans or civilian Good Samaritans, the saying is true of those who offer the supreme sacrifice of their lives for the sake of others that “For your tomorrow we gave our today.” Dying is always going to remain significant and it’s only in the most horrible of conditions when dying becomes trivial, when human life becomes unimportant. This is natural, but we don’t need to bring-in the supernatural to make it even worse.
Halloween emerged in response to All Saints Day. People weren’t satisfied with only talking about resurrection and so they had to tack-on the scary for some reason. In this way, Halloween is only a symptom of something bigger. Popular custom insisted that before we could get to the saints in heaven we had to be afraid of the superstition of witches and ghosts on earth. This isn’t the message that Jesus preached. This isn’t Jesus’ supernatural; this is human superstition. And it’s everywhere. Sometimes I think there are a lot more people who believe in ghosts than in Jesus. Surveys have shown that more people accept hell than believe in heaven. We must be hard-wired to expect the scary. And this does make sense when we think about how mean life can be at times, but like I said, we don’t need to add the supernatural to make this even worse.
Jesus doesn’t talk about fear too often. It’s not a great motivator in the mind of the person who brings a loving and compassionate God to us. One day, says Luke, thousands had gathered around to hear Jesus preach and teach. And Jesus says to them, “‘Do not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who after he has killed, has the power to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!’” (12:5) It sounds like Jesus is latching on to the scary stuff. That’s the imagery of devils, demons, pitchforks, fire and screams. That’s the stuff of condemning the dead to roam the earth for ages haunting cemeteries, houses and scaring the be-Jesus out of people in the dark.
But I cut Jesus off. He wasn’t done saying what He wanted to say. Immediately after the scary-God stuff, Jesus continues, “‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. … Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’” (12:6-7) Right after He says “Fear him!” Jesus adds this little saying about God’s care for even the apparently insignificant sparrow. So, don’t be afraid, He says. Then, in a traditional Jewish form of argument from the lesser to the greater, Jesus tells his Jewish listeners that if God cares so much for an apparently insignificant little bird, then how much more must He care for each one of us. Sure, fear the God who can condemn, says Jesus, but remember this is not the God who is likely to do so. Shakespeare has the line: “It is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to us it like a giant.”[i] The all-powerful God can do what God wants to do except when it’s contrary to His own nature, and God’s nature is anything but scary says Jesus.
This is why, when some of the earliest Christians started to grow scared over the prospect of the end-time and Jesus’ return, that instead the church preached: “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed …” The end-time is accompanied by the destruction of creation as we know it, and that’s down-right terrifying, but then faith should kick-in and remind us that this ends so that we can be gathered together with Jesus. There’s enough in this world to be afraid of, in other words, so don’t add the supernatural to that list. That’s where God dwells, and that’s anything but scary. So have a ton of fun on Halloween. Turn the scary into reasons to go out and fill-up on candy. The stomach ache is a lot more frightening than any supposed ghoul or zombie. Let us celebrate Jesus’ conquest of death by living worthy of such a loving God. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
[i] Measure for Measure, II,ii,7-8.