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Thursday, 31 October 2019

All Hallows Eve (Halloween)

It is October 31 and I've just been out for an evening walk. Along the way I encountered a great many gouls and goblins, witches and warlocks, ghosts and zombies, along with many a house decorated with cobwebs, spiders, and jack-o-lanterns.  The festival of 'halloween' simply did not exist in the Australia of my youth. The evening before November the 1st passed by simply as the evening before November the 1st. For a Baptist family in an almost entirely Anglo-Australian rural town, there was, quite simply, nothing to be celebrated.

But 'Halloween' is now quite a big thing. Even in my home town. The change has come because of the power of global capital. There is a great deal of money to be made out of annual celebrations. And so the festivals of other countries - in this case, the USA - have now implanted themselves in the Australian psyche alongside the consumer festivals that were already here: Christmas and Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day. The annual spend in richer countries around all these festivals is said to be so large that it is able to keep flagging economies going pretty much on its own. 

Of course, 'Halloween', just like Christmas and Easter, has its roots in a Christian festival that began early in the 4th century as a twin commemoration of 'all saints' and 'all souls'. Today, in the more liturgically catholic Western churches, All Saints in celebrated on November 1 and All Souls on November 2. 'All Saints' invites believers to remember and give thanks for the dead who have most clearly and consistently followed in the way of Christ, those who have most inspired others to imitate Jesus. 'All Souls' invites the same believers to remember and give thanks for all the baptised faithful who each, in their own very ordinary ways - and with varying quality! - also sought to follow Christ. 

The Christian festivals of the dead assume, following the teaching of St Paul, that the dead are really and actually dead. Their bodies have ceased to function, their hearts and brains have stopped entirely, and there is no longer anyone to talk to or communicate with. There is no surviving 'soul' or 'spirit' that has slipped into another metaphysical room or dimension, for the spirit - the essential character or personality - cannot survive without the body. All that is left of a dead person is the objects they possessed, their representation in word or image or textile and, most importantly, the precious memories of their loved ones and of God. But the person is simply no more. She or he has ceased to exist.

The consumer festival of halloween apparently finds this sober Christian realism just a little too dull. A more exciting story is apparently necessary to sell all those costumes and sweets. The halloween marketers have therefore revived certain pagan ideas about the dead still being alive in some sense: dwelling, perhaps, in another realm or dimension which can be accessed via certain rituals or on certain days (especially at halloween). One can therefore pretend to be such a dead person - a ghost or goul or zombie - or else one can pretend to be one of those who can help the living access the dead: a medium, a witch, a pagan shaman, priest or priestess. On the other side of the transaction one may pretend to be an ordinary representative of the living who is terrified of what the dead may do if they are not placated or bought off: you can offer a 'treat' - in pagan mythology an 'offering' or 'sacrifice' - to buy the dead's favour. In either case, the usefulness of this revived pagan metaphysics to marketers is twofold. You can sell the appropriate costume to represent the unfriendly dead. And you can sell the remedy for encountering the unfriendly dead: lots of lollies and other forms of sugary candy. Genius really. And incredibly lucrative.

As the tiresome bore I probably am, I tend to avoid the consumer festival of Halloween (along with those associated with Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day). I am not inclined to fall for the consumer trick of creating a problem that buying a product will solve. Nor am I inclined to import a metaphysics of death that is entirely redundant to the Christian faith I hold dear. For me, and for Christians everywhere, the dead are dead. They survive only in our memories and in the memory of God. We can mourn their loss, we can give thanks for their influence in our lives, but they are no longer alive in any real sense. One day we shall all be resurrected, of course, the dead will be reanimated not as we were but as God intends us to be. We shall be different. The whole cosmos and we ourselves will no longer be ourselves in several crucial ways. The old will have gone and the entirely new will have arrived. We will have died to ourselves and become Christ. So whether it makes any sense to talk about being 're-united with our loved ones' except in the most general of senses remains an open question.

May your Hallowtide be blessed by the knowledge that God's love cannot be bought but is simply given, unconditionally.

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