What are we supposed to make of Halloween? I don’t think anyone really knows. Somehow, bizarrely, it has turned into a socially acceptable, culturally-embraced evening for children to dress up as ghosts, ninjas, princesses or athletes and approach total strangers’ houses under the cover of darkness asking them for candy.
Last time I recall trick or treating it was the late 1980’s and I was dressed in a homemade, itchy costume meant to resemble ALF, America’s favorite TV alien with an appetite for cats. For my neighbor, Halloween means it’s time to break out their massive inflatable black cat in their front yard. Where’s ALF when you need him?
The variety of ways to celebrate this day may stem from confusion about its historical footing. Depending on which history one chooses, there is a corresponding name for this day. For example, even today in Edinburgh, Scotland, and elsewhere there is an annual Samhuinn Festival that honors the historical, Celtic heritage of this day as the last day of harvest. To celebrate, once evening has come and the air turns cold and misty, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is filled with people dressed as druids and evil-looking creatures that all participate in a remarkable, firey display of dance and music to celebrate the ancient Celtic “new year,” usher in the changing of the seasons, and to appease the spirits and earn their benevolence.
All Saints Day
Yet this day is not just about goblins, druids, and haunted houses. In fact, historians disagree on whether this was originally a Christian holiday or a pagan celebration that became Christianized at some point in time. Either way, it is perhaps a bit jarring to think of this as a Christian celebration because it certainly does not feel like it. It would be nice to refocus the attention towards Christ and not the mini Snickers bars and skeletons, but how does one go about redeeming something that seems to have lost its way? As it turns out, the Christian history behind this day may serve as a guide.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III called for November 1 to be “All Saints Day,” which initiated a time of honoring the saints and martyrs and eventually came to include praying for departed souls. The evening before became known as “All Hallows Eve.”
Centuries later, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg Door, protesting the price tag that the church had put on forgiveness of sins. This would be the first major act in what would become known as the Reformation, and as such in Protestant circles October 31 is celebrated as Reformation Day.
We can learn a great deal from this history. First of all, the label “Reformed” may have become so common an expression in Protestant circles that it has lost some of its emphasis, but is certainly an appropriate term, as Luther’s actions were, quite literally, towards and for the church. For him, the church had lost its way theologically and practically. This was not an attempt at secession from the church; it was not abandonment; it was a call to reform.
Secondly, we see that reform not only came by way of addressing the practices of the church, such as the selling of indulgences or usury but also the underlying theology. The whole concept of somehow being able to earn a right standing before God, either through stringent personal piety or some sort of purchase, stands in sharp contrast to the message of the Gospel that Luther read throughout scripture. Luther understood that Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8) and that salvation is accomplished “by grace through faith,” not in our own merit (Ephesians 2:8-10). He realized that the church was mistaken: what makes us righteous before God, what allows us to be received and welcomed into His presence is not any sort of pronouncement by the Pope or the purchase of an indulgence to financially offset the cost of our sins but rather the finished work of Christ, who became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Finally, we see that when we grasp that salvation is a gift that is accomplished by what Jesus has done for us, this gospel message has the power to reform far more than we ever anticipated. As the Spirit of God moved through the work of Luther and other reformers, we see the massive scope of the Reformation, ranging from the liturgy of church services to the translating of scripture into everyday languages to the way Christians understood their own standing before God as not being contingent upon a priest’s pronouncement or their own (literal) payment for their sins, but upon our union with Christ in His death and resurrection.
How then do we respond?
For me I have a feeling I will spend a bit of time getting lost in thought about this historical background and giving thanks to the Lord for the reformation He has done and continues to do in my own life…all while looking at that gigantic inflatable black cat across the street.