Halloween, Reformation Day, and All Saints

I love Halloween. I also love Reformation Day (which I realize puts me at odds with some fellow Episcopalians). Most of all, I love All Saints Day (and I like the aesthetics of All Souls/Día de los Muertos, though I find it theologically problematic). It has always felt right to me that these three celebrations go together, jack-o-lanterns and all. My All Saints post from a few years ago is still one of the better things I’ve written, where I talked about the healing bond holding us together with all those we love, as well as those we can’t imagine loving yet, living or dead. That’s the All Saints aspect of the whole thing.

But I also like the Halloween aspect.

It’s an American development, to be sure, but one with Celtic roots and parallels elsewhere. It’s a night when we are aware of the presence of spirits, whether they be the souls of the departed, spirits of places, or just an uncategorizable  sense of the uncanny or more-than-natural. The veil between life and death is thin and the line between reality and irreality is fluid. At best, we both acknowledge our fear of death and the unknown, but also let it play with us and give us goosebumps–and poke a little fun at it in turn. Some Christians take exception to it, but all these things, whatever they are–life, death, spirits, ghosts, even demons–belong to God. They may each rebel against God in their own ways, but in Jesus Christ, hasn’t god reclaimed them all by being born on earth, dying and descending to hell (yes, it’s biblical!), and rising and ascending high above all things, that he might fill all things?

And then there’s the Reformation, commemorated the same day as Halloween or the Sunday before. Some Christians, even Protestants, don’t like it either (my church doesn’t celebrate it). It can easily become a celebration of parochialism, exulting in division rather than mourning it, or equating Lutheranism with German or Scandinavian cultural expressions (as imagined by Americans–in Germany, it’s mostly just a day off work). But isn’t there also that element of terror and despair in the face of an incomprehensible God and a hardly more comprehensible universe full of evil, suffering, and indifference? And can’t that strip away the arrogance of Lutheran Pride Day, or at least infuse the Volksfest with that same acknowledgement of death and desperation that I detect at the root of Halloween?

There was a great article about Luther in the Süddeutsche Zeitung yesterday by Matthias Drobinski called “Searching for Grace in a Graceless World” (it’s in German). He writes (and I translate),

Luther’s search for God was desperate and despairing his whole life long. He wrestles with this God who gives no answers, who draws back and gives ground to the devil, who unpredictably hides himself when a revelation in power and glory would have really been timely. He saws himself cast out and forsaken by God. “Each one must himself contend with those enemies, with the devil and death, and lie in ring with them. I will not be with you, nor you with me,” he wrote. And his answer, that faith alone makes the terrifying God into a gracious God, and this brief human lifespan can indeed have a meaning and a goal, this is an act of trust with no external guarantee. Less than a thread’s width separates this trust, not based on any this-worldly rationality, from that “no” to God when faced with this inconceivable demand of faith.

And he continues elsewhere that the hidden God shows grace “in that hope against hope, in that trust when the ground is sinking, that even in a world full of devils, God is ‘A Mighty Fortress,’ as Martin Luther’s hymn puts it.” Surely it is fitting to both sing with that confidence and to raise a beer mug to it, I say.

And then the whole thing flows into All Saints, and we read that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God” (Wisdom 3:1). The terror that we acknowledged doesn’t go away. I, for one, am painfully aware this time of year of how I failed my departed loved ones when they were alive, and of how they failed me. “But they are at peace” (3:3). And they are here, if only because God is here. I’ll probably never be able to explain this adequately if you don’t already know what I’m talking about.

But if yesterday was about faith, today is about hope, and we may have both of these if we know the love that is their beginning and consummation. It’s love that holds together life and death, the joy and terror of Halloween, the faith and despair of Reformation Day, and the hope of All Saints. You can’t love without being a part of this whole mess of existence, where with all who ever have been or are yet to be, we are being transfigured from one degree of glory to another.

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.