First United Methodist Church
November 5th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
For All the Saints
Every year at this time, we celebrate two holidays, Halloween and All Saints Day. We tend to look at Halloween as a fun day to dress up in scary costumes, and there is always a question as to whether the Church should be involved with Halloween. There is, however, a theological and historical relationship between the two days. Historically, celebrations of the harvest existed among many cultures, and as superstitions developed, some cultures spent the last day before All Saints Day warding off evil spirits or intervening for the dead.
In Europe, people believed that October 31 was a day when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back and cause havoc such as disease and damage to crops. The “Sah-win” (Samhain) festival, as it was called, included building bonfires to ward off the evil spirits. People dressed in costumes and wore masks to mimic the spirits and appease them.
Another tradition that connects the two holidays was an activity called, “souling,” when poor folk would go door to door on “Hallowmas,” or November 1, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead.
The Church, of course, has worked to keep Halloween separate and distinct from All Saints Day, but you can see that, as both of these days grew in significance among the faithful, a shared purpose emerged.
Halloween has a lot of elements that are far from sacred. But there are two things that are important to keep in mind when we think about this particular day. First, the use of dark colors and masks and the concept of warding off evil is purposeful. And second, Jesus has shown throughout the gospels that he has power and authority over demons and darkness, and Christ is often metaphorically called “the light.” On the first Sunday following Halloween, we celebrate All Saints Day with the color white and we light candles in memory of our loved ones. We celebrate the goodness of the souls that have gone on to God in the past year. Symbolically, the brightness of All Saints Day becomes even brighter because we lived through the eve of darkness.
In the Bible darkness – a place of nighttime, sometimes a place of fear or pain, and often a place of waiting – is contrasted with the use of light – a place of daytime, boldness, peace, and occasionally, a place of revelation. It is the light and dark working together that offer us expressions of God’s presence in our lives. When we are in the places of fear in our souls, God is with us, offering us boldness and peace. We are reassured by scriptures such as Psalm 23, which remind us of God’s abiding presence, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” God doesn’t simply give us a hug and a smile and offer to meet us on the other side – God walks beside us, supporting us the entire way.
It is because of this abiding presence that I don’t worry about holidays like Halloween, which seemingly celebrate the darker side of our existence, but in reality merely make fun of it. Children choose to dress up like ghosts, zombies and witches, because by wearing a costume they show the world that these monsters no longer have power over them. A person rarely pretends to be something that truly terrifies them.
Understanding the connection between Halloween and All Saints Day is important, but it’s more important to remember that All Saints Day is a holy holiday, and Halloween is not. We don’t have to completely blacklist it because we are Christians, but we do need to keep them separate and protect the true and traditional way in which we honor our “saints.”
Have you ever wondered what classifies a person as a saint? Until the early 13th Century, there was no formal process to canonize saints. We often think of saints as being holy or remarkable people who did something extraordinary for God. People like Saint Francis, Mother Teresa or Saint Paul come to mind. We also think of people we know personally who have positively influenced us, who often possess an immeasurable amount of patience, kindness and love. This may include a relative, a teacher, or a friend. When I think of saints I often think of pre-school teachers, who, by my definition, have definitely earned the title of “Saint.”
Thomas Merton, a saintly person in his own right, once said, “A saint is not someone who is good. It is someone who has experienced the goodness of God.” In other words, saints are those who have come to know deep, abiding grace. 1 John suggests that our ability to see Christ as he is begins with knowing, or experiencing grace. As our everyday experiences become more and more immersed in this everlasting, never-ending, almost reckless kind of love (that’s a line from a song), we reflect it. But the world, or those without faith, can’t see it, because they themselves have not experienced it.
In the Sermon on the Mount, which we find in Matthew, Jesus gives us the definition of a saint, when he tells us who is bless-ed. “Bless-ed” means to proclaim God’s favor toward a particular group of people. In this case Jesus indicates that those who aspire to live under God’s reign are blessed. According to Merton, saints understand that their failures and shortcomings do not disqualify them from receiving God’s love. Saints have learned that their smallness, weakness, past mistakes, or shortcomings do not alienate God, but instead bring God closer, and they are able to experience God’s presence in their lives in unique and powerful ways.
So if we take our modern understanding of a saint and combine it with Merton’s description as well as Jesus’ beatitudes, we come up with the following: saints are extraordinary, influential, determined, sensitive, fallible, and damaged. A true saint leads by example and influences change in other people’s lives. I once read a book which is written by a person who might be considered a saint, not only because his writing is inspiring, but also because of the life he chose to live.
Brennan Manning, author of the Ragamuffin Gospel, began his life like any other potential saint. He grew up, graduated from high school, served in the Marines, attended different colleges, eventually graduated and entered seminary before being ordained to the Franciscan priesthood. He would go on to become a theologian, a campus minister, a spiritual director, and the author of nearly two dozen books. His faith was evident in the way he lived, living among the poor as a mason’s assistant, a dishwasher and a shrimper. He also voluntarily lived as a prisoner in order to minister to convicts, with only the warden knowing his identity as a priest.
If Manning’s story and life ended with this description, there would be little doubt about his sainthood. But Manning’s ministry and life disintegrated into a horrific experience with alcoholism. By the time he entered treatment, he was homeless and living on a quart of vodka a day. It took more than one trip to rehab to get him sober, and when he finally did, he left the priesthood and was married. His marriage would soon dissolve and he would again land in rehab before this recurring cycle of rehab and relapse would end.
Manning says that the greatest regret of his life is not his relapses into alcoholism. His greatest regret is the “time I’ve wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation…I’m not speaking about the appropriate guilt one ought to feel after committing a sin. I’m talking about wallowing in guilt, almost indulging in it, which is basically a kind of idolatry where I am the center of my focus and concern.”
He then went on to say, “I can waste no more time being shocked or horrified that I have failed. There’s nothing else I can do now but help sinners journey from self-hatred to God’s love, and to help people see that if God ceased to love, God would cease to be God.”
One of my favorite movies has a scene in it in which the two main characters participate in a drama exercise. They are to “argue” with each other by saying the following two statements: “You can be loved by me” and “I can be loved by you.” Although the movie had nothing to do with Christianity or living a life of faith, these phrases have become a part of my everyday spiritual routine, where I listen to God tell me, “You can be loved by me,” and I respond (now with an immense amount of joy), “I can be loved by you!” The way I see it, sainthood is not simply trying to love God with our whole heart; until we recognize that we are worthy of God’s love and accept it, we don’t have the ability to love God.
Our Saints, the loved ones we will honor today, were loved by God. Honor their memories by allowing God to love you too. Amen.
As you go out into the community this week, remember that you are blessed, beloved children of God. Be a blessing to all of God’s children and walk in the footsteps of the saints of old. Go in peace.