In my quiet suburban cul-de-sac in Atlanta, our neighbors are competing with one another to mark Halloween in the oddly incoherent American way that has become our “normal.”
We have our Harvest Festival types — friendly looking scarecrows, straw hats, bales of hay, corncobs, pumpkins, all orange and brown and leafy.
We have our Kid-Friendly types — orange and black balloons, smiley ghosts, Disney inflatables.
We have our Death Defied (or is it Deified?) types — cemetery markers, ghost pirate ships, skeletal arms, hands, fingers protruding from the ground.
We have our Creepy Clown neighborhood prize winner — with that manic blood-red lipsticked face staring up at you when you walk by.
Even though the Centers for Disease Control warns against Halloween trick-or-treating, I am quite sure that on that sacred/scared night legions of children, teenagers and an occasional random adult will make their way to our door to scoop up whatever goodies Jeanie and I have to offer. Perhaps more than the usual number of costumes will feature masks this year, but the show must go on. America cannot manage in-person school, but we will manage in-person candy acquisition.
Today’s American Halloween combines three threads, two of which are vestigial and one of which is primary.
Vestigial Thread No. 1 is a nature festival, a celebration of harvests and of the rural America that still feeds us but is remote from the experience of most Americans.
Vestigial Thread No. 2 is a remnant of the Christian All Saints’/All Souls’ Days.
Primary Thread No. 3 is a commercial children’s holiday marked by the massive buying of costumes and eager consumption of sugary treats.
“The idea of the communion of the saints has come to mean more and more to me as more and more of my loved ones have crossed to the other side.”
I want to talk about the All Saints/All Souls piece of Halloween. It deserves retrieval, because it is an aspect of Christian tradition with a wisdom we need today.
Essentially, this Christian festival (marked as one or two holy days, depending on the tradition) is about remembering all the saints — that is, all who have lived and died in Christ. It is a time for the living to pause and remember their loved ones who have gone ahead of them into death. It is a moment to think about mortality and eternity — about the heaven that awaits those who have died in Christ (and perhaps about what awaits those who die apart from Christ). It is also a chance to affirm and celebrate the spiritual bond that exists between the living and the dead in what church doctrine calls “the communion of the saints.”
These days are sometimes used to encourage reflection on the great saints of the ages, that is, the spiritual giants of the faith who blaze a trail for the rest of us to imitate. In traditional Catholicism, All Souls’ Day in particular has been a time to pray for and even care for the souls of those departed who are still enduring purgatory on their way to heaven. And, of course, in Protestantism, Reformation Day trumps or negates all that Catholic stuff.
This aspect of the Christian calendar seems to recognize the time of year and how it feels — that is, in the northern hemisphere, as fall deepens toward winter. It also reflects the need — at least one time a year — to pass beyond our constant state of nose-to-the-grindstone denial and face what we most grieve (the loss of our loved ones) and most fear (more loss of loved ones, and our own deaths).
The idea of the communion of the saints has come to mean more and more to me as more and more of my loved ones have crossed to the other side. I used to have an immediate family of six people whom I naively assumed would live forever and be a family always. Now we are down to four, with my mother and sister Janette lost to cancer.
The idea that we remain a family of six (and more, as spouses and children have come along) and that death cannot ultimately separate us, is to me unspeakably comforting.
The same is true of the church as a whole. This never was clearer to me than when I was serving as a pastor, and I watched over time as more members moved from the pews to Jesus’ side. Yet they lived on, in our hearts, in our memories and in our community of faith. They were only provisionally gone, not ultimately gone.
I came to understand why it is so difficult for church members — mainly widows and widowers, and their children and grandchildren — to want to move from their specific places in our large sanctuary. This spot belonged to our family, including Grandpa and Grandma, and Dad and Mom, who no longer occupy the place but do still dwell among us. A bit more communion of the saints theology might help, but I sure understand what is going on better than I used to.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the All Saints/All Souls holy days would devolve into bony skeletons and creepy clowns. Halloween became a time to toy with our fears, to face them for a night, and then put them away again in the dark attic corners of our minds.
I never was interested in toying with death. I never thought that was the right spirit for facing it. I was sure of that when my mother died in 2014. It is terribly obvious in a COVID-afflicted land with all too many real deaths to grieve.
At Halloween, I don’t need skeletons and creepy clowns. I need the assurance that my bond with my mother and my sister was ultimately sealed in Jesus Christ, and that not even death itself can separate my spirit from theirs.
That’s because Jesus, who rose from the dead and broke its power, gets the last word.
David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and Society of Christian Ethics. He is an author or editor of 25 books. His most recognized works include Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life, and Changing Our Mind. He earned the Ph.D. from Union Seminary. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta.