Do I love Halloween because I love darkness? That’s a trick question, albeit an unintentional one. Do I love darkness? Yes. Every son and daughter of Adam loves darkness, John records for us in the light of Nicodemus’ bumbling nighttime interview with Jesus. Our inheritance as a race is a disavowal of the light and an embrace of gloom and death. So am I somehow an exception that escapes the charge? Not at all. But is this affirmation the bottom line for why I delight in Halloween? For some the answer will be an obvious “Yes”, but I think the reductionism packaged in that answer needs pressure exerted upon it because it disdains the darkness inherent to our faith.
Many Christians presume to have Halloween understood: it’s a hangover from our benighted, pre-Christian ancestry, they figure, a testament to the devilish impropriety that survives in the old Adam and needs to be expunged, not celebrated. This is why we see “Harvest parties” being thrown in elementary schools and co-ops the nation over, or do something really bizarre like trick or treat for REFORMATION DAY (???)–we instinctively flock to the trappings of Halloween but our pious superegos chide those sensibilities. “You should like happier things!” it barks superciliously. But we cannot escape the world’s horrors by fleeing them. Like the Law, our efforts turn back on and contort and undermine and subvert themselves; the closer we think we are to hitting the mark the farther we recede from it. Our aim to keep the Law guarantees the breaking of the Law. So our aim to spurn horrors and close our eyes to horrors only ushers in those horrors in floods instead of trickles.
The gospel is not the rejection of all darkness and death, but rather their baptism. The gospel is the account of the Son of God taking on himself the nature of his own dejected creations to save them from their own self-wrought ruin and misery. The gospel is about a real embodied person in a real historical time and place confronting the real enslaving powers of sin and death and permitting them to unleash all of their virulent might against him, and how he exhausted their hatred and violence by not bypassing their ugliness and repugnance and agony. Jesus Christ undid the machinations of evil from within, springing his trap for them within the flesh and emotions he delivered over for our sake. And in triumphing through what appeared to all observers at first as utter defeat, he has shamed them publicly and invited us to participate in the triumphal parade that continues their humiliation.
Disdain for Halloween signals a misunderstanding on Christians’ parts, and that misunderstanding is this: that the use of dark subject matter entails the veneration of that subject matter. But this ignores God’s incorporation of darkness and death in his project to rescue his creation from darkness and death. God makes foolish the wisdom of the wise (1 Corinthians 1:20) as he puts to use those things that are his opposite (malice, envy, arrogance, destruction, and the like) in order to undermine and subvert them. God employs the very things he campaigns against and permits their plots to hatch and engulf them in the consequences they could not foresee, in the graves they have dug for themselves. Christ did not defeat the horrors of the cosmos by overwhelming them with hugs and candy: he absorbed every ounce of their brutality in his body and died. This is why the Roman Empire scoffed at the claims of the fledgling Jesus movement–a crucified savior was nonsense to their ears, the worst kind of bad joke. And it always will be to a theology of glory that tries to keep its hands clean of the muck of the world in its attempt to serve God. We cannot serve God with a scrupulousness that would bat away all darkness when God is the God who saves by plunging into that darkness. If God had to wait for clean tools for his use, he would wait forever; he has nothing else to work with but broken, convoluted messes like us. And he is far from ashamed to do so.
This technique of reappropriating the tools of darkness was understood by Pope Boniface IV, who in 609 AD consecrated the Pantheon, a pagan temple dedicated to “all the gods”, into service as a church, refashioning it for Saint Mary and All the Martyrs. Every statue of pagan gods was removed and replaced with the likeness of one of the apostles. Boniface didn’t tear the Pantheon down and melt the rubble–he washed it and retooled its purpose to serve the God who appropriates what is fallen. He dedicated a feast to observe every Christian martyr who had surrendered their life after the pattern of their master, a feast that grew to become the Feast of All Saints. When it was instituted, however, the Feast of All Saints was celebrated in May, the month the temple was consecrated. The repurposing of this altar was a decisive stroke against the old powers, but another one awaited.
It was a motion of mercy, you see, for Pope Gregory IV to relocate the Feast of All Saints to November 1. What prompted this move? Gregory knew the fear that still gripped the people of the British Isles who had embraced Christ yet could not but remember the ancestral fears that surrounded their observance of Samhain. Samhain was a Gaelic festival that marked summer’s end and transitioned into the darkest, coldest part of the year. The liturgical-spiritual power of the harvest being gathered and winter waiting to usher in death suffused the festival. Shoring up life in the face of decay shaped their consciousness such that it was understood as a liminal period in which the otherworldly forces could more easily walk among the living. These beings had to be appeased in order to survive through the winter. Even if Samhain was no longer officially observed by the Christianized Celts, their spiritual consciousness that had been baptized into Christ had not disavowed the possibility of supernatural horrors. The power of the Prince of the power of the air was keenly felt, and so Gregory pronounced the Feast of All Saints would be observed at the heart of the old Samhain festival, with a vigil the day before–the eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. It was a deeply pastoral move that prompted Gregory to act, and it eased the fears of his people for whom the ages had conceptually shifted and yet for whom the changing of the seasons signaled the return of old, creeping horrors.
The consecration of Samhain to illuminate the fears of weary Celts meant they didn’t have to pretend the frost wasn’t setting in, that the days weren’t getting shorter, that death wasn’t enclosing for the winter. They didn’t have to live in denial of the very real darkness they were in the midst of: instead, they could reappropriate the old trappings of Samhain to subvert the terrors that once attended it. They could participate in Christ’s triumph too, and shame the powers he had defeated. They no longer needed to wear frightening masks or light bonfires to scare away demons and spirits–now they could dress up to mock and deride them. We do no better in our era trying to hand wave away the powers that lurk behind secularized curtains. The powers and principalities brood and seethe within our institutions, plotting our exploitation the same as they always have. Pretending they aren’t there won’t make them go away. Halloween reminds us each year that beneath the mundane surface appearance of our world there is an impulse towards the fearful and the supernatural that cannot find its genesis in simple dissatisfaction with contemporary conditions. There is something within us that is hardwired towards the not-merely-mortal, the not-merely-earthly. It is an impulse that attracts and yet carries with it the possibilities of horror when we encounter the powers that yet roam our world.
If it is true that our fellowship with God is honed and deepened through the experience of terror, then to believe full stop that doom and darkness are to be avoided at all costs means the thwarting of that fellowship. There’s no solace to be had in a gospel sterilized of death and discomfort and the demonic. It’s a theology of glory that seeks the utter banishment of darkness, but it is a theology of the cross that recognizes the ongoing reality of that darkness and seeks God where he is to be found: at its center. What we seek is not so much light after the darkness as light, paradoxically, within the darkness. And that is why Halloween is for all the saints.