Matthew 5:1-12   NRSV

Halloween is a time of year that brings back many memories for people.

And if you are one of those who gives out candy to kids who come to your door, then probably every year you remember when you dressed up and carried a bag that would eventually fill up with a sugar-laced mass.

candyComaCandy Coma.

Even so, for some, hearing the word Halloween makes them cringe a little. Perhaps it’s because they saw the movie by the same name and that creepy piano theme music makes them remember a scary character. Still others cringe at Halloween because they think that it might be some evil celebration that certainly Christians should not participate in. Others go to the other extreme and set up their homes like haunted houses or witch’s cauldrons, equipped with fake, impaled heads, plastic witches, mummies; scary sounds [that can also be quite annoying, I might add] playing on a continuous loop.

And yes, some fanatics even have a Spirit of Halloween charge card.

Okay, so extremism aside, let’s look at reality.

The name Halloween is old English. It refers to the night before All Hallow’s Day, better known as All Saints Day, which is Nov. 1. All Saints is actually a Christian celebration of Protestants and Catholics, remembering the faithful people of all ages who have passed away, yet who lived lives of love, generosity, faith, and humility. This celebration of people’s lives and service goes back to the 8th century.[1]

Hallowe’en is more like Christmas Eve than you could ever imagine.

Hallowe’en was the preparation night for people to get ready for the feast and party on All Saint’s Day, which was called Hallowmas, just like Christmas. So on Halloween night, people lit candles and prayed; maybe sang songs; hmmm…sound familiar?

But these traditions were and are not Christian by nature or origin.

The ancient Druids, from what we know, were a priestly class of Celtic people living all over Western Europe during the Iron Age, which may have begun around 1200 BCE. Druid culture included a celebration for the beginning of the New Year on Nov. 1st. When the Romans started conquering Western Europe, the Druid Celts combined traditions with the Romans.

And they changed their name; or at least the history books did.
The “Roman Celts” as they were called, started a new tradition on the eve of Samhain [end of summer]. They believed that evil spirits were unleashed to create havoc on the earth on this particular night.

Or maybe they knew what Costco and Wegmans are like on a Sunday afternoon in the fall?

CostcoLOR wegmansSWAnyway, to keep these evil spirits from causing too much havoc, the Roman Celts had a great idea: let’s put on scary costumes made of animal skin to scare those spirits away!

And so they did.
You can connect the dots.

The religion of Roman Christianity spread throughout Europe, mixing in old traditions as it went. People lit fires on Halloween night to honor and remember the dead, all the while wearing costumes to scare evil spirits.
But the Middle Ages led to the craziness we know today—the witches, fairies, ghosts, and spirits. And then the legend of this poor guy named Jack who was kicked out of heaven for being bad and even kicked out of hell for joking around too much with the devil. Who knew that the devil didn’t have a sense of humor? In cartoons and such he always seems to be laughing with a sinister chuckle. Oh well.

Anyway, this Jack got his punishment: he had to walk the earth with a lantern until Judgment Day.
Connect the dots again: Jack O’Lantern?

And it wasn’t until the 17th century in Ireland that a certain tradition of poorer folks going from house to house asking for money began. All they wanted was to buy food for the big feast on All Saint’s Day.

Trick or treat, you’re so funny; now please give us a bit of money…

I think you get the idea—how all these traditions, legends, and stories mixed together over the years and formed new ones.
And of course, some traditions are easily marketed. Commercialism has made Halloween into another shopping season.

Meanwhile, the traditions with stronger meaning tend to be less marketable; they require more thought and even some spirituality.

And yet, all over the world, people still practice remembering traditions.

For example, in Mexico and in other parts of the Americas, people observe El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Children, youth, and adults prepare homemade “altars” to remember their loved ones, decorating them with flowers and candles, their favorite foods, or other items to remind them of those who have gone on to the next life. Thousands of candles illuminate cemeteries and homes and huge crowds gather in large communities to sing, remember life, and celebrate.

In other cultures around the world, people remember those who have passed on and celebrate their lives.
Here are some striking photos of these remembering traditions from around the globe:

MexicoDiaDeMuertos budapestAllSaints Mexico-City-Mexico-Miniat-003 Mexico-City-MexicoA-man-d-006 Croatiacommemorate-All-012 PeruDayDead MexicoSanGregorio GuatemalaDead Perucemetary HaitiDead Spaindead An-Indian-Christian-famil-027 An-Indian-Christian-famil-028Remembering those who have gone before us, and pausing to do so—is counter-culture. Typically, holidays in the West do not include much pausing at all, but are in fact busier. Many, many people will not take even a few moments [much less two days] to reflect, pray, light candles, sing, eat with friends and family, and to remember.

Perhaps that’s why we struggle so much with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not bumper sticker material or perfect for your newest t-shirt design. Jesus’ teachings, like those of any spiritual leader, require time and effort to unpack, study, and think about.

While the world keeps trying to convince us that we ought to fight with each other and compete for resources so that we will be in a certain social class, if we pause, we can hear something different.

We can hear from this Jesus of Nazareth that the path of humility is the one to walk; that our so-called important accomplishments are not so important.

That taking risks for the sake of others is important; that forgiving is far worth the time and energy; that loving people unconditionally as they are can move psychological mountains; that it’s better and more healthy to be skeptical of what the world says is normal; that it is oh so beneficial for you and for everyone if you stop judging others; and that if we do something good for a living creature [whether animal, plant, or human], without expecting anything in return—something positive spreads.

I don’t believe in saints [at least I don’t believe that there were or are certain people who are religiously more important or spiritually superior].

But I do think that we have an invitation to remember.

We’ll need to slow down our busy minds and bodies for a moment, though.
We will need to remember that where there is death, life is right next door.
And vice versa.

We’ll have to admit that the Jesus we often talk about in churches is not the Jesus of Scripture, who especially blessed the kinds of people who are typically left out of most churches.

And if we light candles, sings songs, say prayers, visit cemeteries, meditate, or think about it deeply—we’ll need to remember that blessing is not immunity from pain or loss or doubt. Remembering to be blessed is also remembering to be honest about what you feel, what you’re going through, and not ignoring it.

Such a practice will also help us to see others and their pain, suffering, and sense of loss.

And such remembering can lead us to the real blessing of wholeness [Shalom], recognizing our full humanity and that the Spirit lives and moves in us all. Such remembering can lead to contentment and an authentic joy in life that does not depend on all the external circumstances.

So friends, remember.

[1] 1. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saint’s Days: A Study in Origins and Survivals in Church Ceremonies and Secular Customs. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1974) pp.190-97.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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