Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

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Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

[iii] Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

“God isn’t fixing this”

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John's Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Once upon a time, worshippers entered their church on the Second Sunday of Advent to find a great wall between themselves and the sanctuary. The beautiful mosaics, the richly colored marble walls, and the magnificent carved Christ above the high altar were all hidden from view by this strange iconostasis, made from front pages of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of the images of holy men and women that adorn a traditional altar screen, there were banner headlines screaming catastrophe and mayhem.

When the assembly was seated, a mime came up the aisle to stand before the wall, searching for some way through it. His movements and gestures indicated perplexity, frustration, and finally discouragement. Then a voice from beyond the wall cried out,

Jerusalem, turn your eyes to the east,
see the joy that is coming to you from God. (Baruch 4:36).

Responding to the voice, the mime tore a small hole in the wall, and peeked through. He seemed entranced by what he saw.

The voice continued:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of God’s glory. (Baruch 5:1)

The mime began to tear down the wall, encouraging others to join him. One by one, people rose from their pews to rip down the veil “of sorrow and affliction,” until the beauty of God’s sanctuary was finally revealed.

This simple but powerful ritual, the prelude to a eucharist I curated forty years ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, comes to mind whenever I hear that passage from Baruch in the December lectionary. It’s what we pray for each Advent from our place on this side of the wall: Good Lord, deliver us. Stir up your power. Tear down the wall between us. Show us your glory.

That wall of headlines reflected my ongoing interest in connecting Advent themes with the news of the world. The WTO protests in Seattle (1999) and the Occupy Movement (2011) both coincided nicely with Advent, mirroring its prophetic themes of judging the present order with the hope and vision of something better.[i] And just last week, the front page of the New York Daily News supplied a marvelous Advent provocation. By noon, it had 11 million Facebook views, and 74,000 shares.

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

The headline was a sharp rebuke to the shameless politicians who promise prayers for the victims of gun violence while refusing to do anything about the guns. Calling them “cowards who could truly end gun scourge” but instead “hide behind pious platitudes,” the newspaper offered a blunt theological assertion: “God isn’t fixing this.”[ii]

The daily office Old Testament readings for early Advent, calling the world to account for its evils, say much the same thing. To those who refuse to “renounce the dictates of our own wicked hearts,”[iii] the prophets imagine God declaring, “You made your own bed. Now lie in it.” (Thankfully, the prophets always redeem their rants in the end with comforting decrees of mercy and salvation).

However, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas was not comfortable with the Daily News’ riff on the old biblical idea that God sometimes gets fed up with human folly. His photoshopped revision was posted on Facebook and Twitter.

God hears our prayers

Of course this clueless retort (note the unfortunate juxtaposition of the headline with the red banner above it) did not actually answer the question of whether – or how – God acts in the world to “fix” things. It was just a clumsy attempt by a presumed gun lover to change the subject. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences, unlike real prayer, which always implicates the petitioner in a process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is a call for action; it politicizes what we pray for. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God. It is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution.

But is there such a thing as God’s solution? Does God – can God – fix things? It is not a question with a clear and simple answer. Human freedom has thrown a monkey wrench into the story of the world, while God has surrendered absolute control of the narrative. If we make a mess of things, God is not an indulgent parent rushing in to cover for us. We don’t get to multiply our weapons and then wonder why God allows so much violence.

So where does that leave us? In the Advent section of his Christmas Oratorio,[iv] W. H. Auden describes a closed-in, godless world where hope is absent.

Alone, alone about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind …
The Pilgrim Way has led to the abyss.

But what if we are not alone? What if there is a God who can make the abyss into a way? What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.

Whatever the “solution” (salvation) may be in the tangled histories of the world and the soul, it is a long-term, sometimes excruciating, process, requiring honest engagement with the consequences of human sin in acts of confession, repentance, reconciliation, justice, healing, sacrifice, and transformation. And I submit that these are not simply things we do with God, as though God were only a helper from the outside. They are things we do in God, or God does in us, as our own intentions and actions become the embodiment – the incarnation – of divine purpose.

So yes, I believe that God is fixing the world, but not in the short run. And not without us.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] I preached on both these events at the time, with mixed results. Some were not so ready to find traces of God in social movements which trouble the powers-that-be. One church subsequently banned me from its pulpit for being too “partisan.” Guilty as charged.

[ii] New York Daily News, December 3, 2015.

[iii] Baruch 2:8

[iv] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 273