Sermon for All Saints Service, 28 October 2018
Follows the Gospel of John 11: 32-44
And so the ancient feast of Halloween is nearly upon us once again.
The custom of dressing up in scary costumes for Hallowe’en- ‘guising’, to use the good old Scots word- goes back to the old pagan beliefs about keeping evil spirits out of our way. Some experts tell us that many of the traditions of Hallowe’en predate even the Christian influence on our culture.
And it’s probably true that many people mark Hallowe’en nowadays without knowing where the word comes from.
But no doubt we all know that Hallowe’en is, of course, All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saints Day (Actually on 1st November but we celebrate it today).
All Saints is the date when, in many parts of the Christian church, Christians remember those who have gone before us, and who are now in God’s presence.
Both Hallowe’en and All Saints are, in different ways, about the dead. Hallowe’en reminds us of an age when people really believed that the spirits of the dead could come back to haunt us. The costumes at Hallowe’en- the dis-guises- are an attempt to ward off malevolent spirits. At Hallowe’en, death is associated with fear, the supernatural, and darkness. While there is something to fear in malign influences – we should not be fearful unless we actually involve ourselves with them.
But the Christian conception of death is quite different from the pagan conception. We believe that God loves us- even into eternity. Nothing- not even death nor life- can separate us from God’s love. Our first scripture reading is itself pre Christian coming as it does from the book of Wisdom – purportedly written by King Solomon and added to the Bible quite late – in the 16th century. It points to a strongly Christian understanding of death:
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.
They are at peace. God loves them to all eternity – God will never let himself be separated from them. They are loved for all eternity and as we hear in the letter of 1 John:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
The power of evil lies in fear; fear of the unknown, fear of what might happen, fear of those around us. And while Halloween might give us a frisson of fear, while it might be exciting for kids to dress up and have a lark, the message of this increasingly popular “feast” is not ultimately positive.
I remember the days when trick or treating was really about scaring people into giving you sweets or an apple, and if they didn’t give you anything then retribution was meted out…… These days of course it is very closely stewarded by responsible adults and children are not left to run rampant around the parish with eggs and flower, or worse.
So Halloween – is fun, can be scary, and as we all know is certainly commercial.
All Saints is about something qualitatively different.
About love banishing fear,
About light transforming darkness
About hope conquering doubt.
Its about celebrating goodness. But who are these people we celebrate today?
Those who are in the hand of God and are at peace?
Who are we thinking about.
Is it Peter, Paul, Mary and the like?
Is it about the plaster saints we see immortalised in statues and widows in churches?
Yes, it is about them.
However, we have to remember that they were just like you and me. The only reason that they are still famous and we still remember them today is not about who they were, but who they followed.
E.g. Mary. We have a lady chapel in the church. Called so because there would have been a statue of Our Lady – Mary there. It would have been dedicated to her. Now lots of people find it difficult when she is given a prominent place in church life. And I understand this. She was not and is not God and should not be treated as such. Some people believe that she can pray for us. So ask her prayers, just like we would ask for each others prayers. Some find this difficult – and I understand this
This is the way I approach this: Mary may well have been a special person, but the main reason she is special is not because of who she was – but because of who she gave birth to. The reason any of the saints are important is that they followed the one Mary gave birth to.
So in answering my earlier question of who is in the hand of God, who is at peace – its those who have followed.
The question for all of us today is whether we are open to the invitation to follow – to be in the hand of God.
Because if we are, then we too will have peace and be numbered with the saints. This I think is so much more attractive than ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night.
I’m going to leave you with a short poem – just in case it all gets a bit much during the week. It was written by a saint, and I’m saying this only half tongue in cheek. Written by Spike Milligan – who was a devout Catholic to the end, a saint of the church.
Things that go 'bump' in the night
Should not really give one a fright.
It's the hole in each ear
That lets in the fear,
That, and the absence of light!
Father Matthew BUCHAN