Seeing Halloween and All Saints’ Anew

Sonnet 100
Lord Brooke, Fulke Greville

In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;

And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

This week, monsters and mayhem, devils and demons emerge from our inward imaginings to take on physical form, as Halloween captures our attentions. This celebration of the church is everywhere. From carved pumpkins to candy-covered apples to candy-filled children to cobwebs and spiders to Charlie Brown Specials, this holy season finds many secular expressions. This season is almost anachronistic, reminiscent of those ancient times when the natural and supernatural seemed interchangeable and life and death seemed familiar companions. In that world, Halloween was meant to be a reminder not so much of darkness and death but of light and (eternal) life. Halloween served this role because it accompanied All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, is when the church commemorates all saints, known and unknown. The eve of All Saints’ is known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Each year, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1. Much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, on All Saints’ Day we remember many people. All Saints’ Day is a day set aside in the church year to remember all those “saints” of the church who have died, specifically naming those individuals we know and love who have died since our last All Saints’ Day celebrations.
Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century C.E. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this practice. The ancient book reads:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps (18).
Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location and, often, local churches honored local saints. However, gradually celebration days became universal. The first reference to a general celebration for all the saints occurs in 373 C.E. Early on, John Chrysostom assigned a day for the dead to the first Sunday after Pentecost. The eastern churches still celebrate All Saints’ on that day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13. The current observance of November 1 probably originates from the time of Pope Gregory III and was likely first observed in Germany. Following the Reformation, in most western Christian traditions, the celebration of All Saints’ Day expanded to include commemorations of all who had died in a given year, mirroring the early church practice of attributing sainthood to all Christians in a community.
The vigil of the feast (i.e., the celebration or watch-service on the “eve” before a holiday) has become its own festival. Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigil the church mocks evil because for the church the night serves as a living confession that evil and death have no real, ultimate power over us.
As a result, various customs have developed related to Halloween. For instance, in the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.” Similarly, the custom of wearing masks and costumes developed to mock evil and to confuse the evil spirits. In addition, on All Hallows Eve, it was customary for Christians to visit cemeteries to commemorate departed relatives and friends with picnics and the last flowers of the year. Whether All Saints’ is celebrated in the spring or in the autumn or is intended for some or all of the departed, the celebrations of Halloween and All Saints’ reminds us that we live in a world more about light than darkness, more about hope than despair, more about life than death, more about resurrection than the grave. Without All Saints’ Day, the customs and costumes of Halloween lose their potency and significance. Without Halloween, All Saints’ becomes stilted and more solemnity than celebration.
Enjoy the celebrations both on Saturday and on Sunday, remembering these words from John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
See you at chapel on both Wednesday, as we look toward Halloween, and on Sunday, as we celebrated All Saints’ Day as a community.

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Seeing Family Anew

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Matthew 12: 46-50

While an intern at Duke Chapel, this passage of scripture was the assigned gospel reading one beautiful autumn Sunday. Interestingly it was not just any autumn Sunday. I remember that Sunday clearly, because Dean Will Willimon—now United Methodist Bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference—commented on the providence or mischievousness of this Matthew lectionary reading and Duke’s family weekend falling on the same day. This, as you might imagine, was not exactly the text most parents who had driven hundreds or thousands of miles to share in a weekend with their child hoped to hear as they gather for worship in the University’s chapel. Nevertheless, it was the assigned text. And, as a faithful lectionary preacher, Dean Willimon proceeded to analyze the text and consider how the coincidence of that Sunday’s text reminds us of the gospel’s often inconvenient intrusion into our lives.

Regularly, the tenor of the whole gospel, much like the tenor of this text, is intrusive. We have things just so, and, then, here comes the gospel.

The gospel is not always received as good news by everyone. Frequently, the good news of the gospel is difficult news to receive because it turns upon their heads all sorts of expectations. The blind are to see. The captives set free. The oppressed are to be liberated. The rich must give away everything. The poor inherit the kingdom. The temple is torn down and rebuilt around a people. Empires are disempowered. The marginalized are invited in. The whole gospel is about social, religious, personal, institutional, and political transformation. And, as this text confirms, nothing is off limits to the transformative reach of the gospel, not even the sacred territory of home and hearth.

Here, Jesus, resisting the temptation of his family to “just calm down and be a little more reasonable,” not only rejects their cautioning but rejects them, too. His quick outburst serves as notice that even the bonds of family will be challenged and strained by the expectations of the gospel. Consider these verses from Luke’s gospel where Jesus is describing the characteristics of the kingdom:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
“father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke12:51-53)

With everything shaken up, this new community of church is meant to become the defining, central social organization of his new kingdom.

And, it is a community not predicted by the old bonds of obligation and kin and blood. Rather, this new community is defined by love and kingship and water. The old adage that blood is thicker than water is inverted as the water of baptism erases divisions stained in blood. The waters of baptism become a radical washing away and remaking of everything, including faith and family. I think it no accident that some of the Apostle Paul’s favorite descriptions of the gospel are about adoption and the elimination of social, political, and economic barriers within God’s resurgent kingdom. I think about those eliminated barriers and the new communities, families created through water every day.

Each morning when our daughter calls for my wife or for me, I am reminded how the gospel is no respecter of biological bonds, and that family, in God’s kingdom, is primarily a relational category. When my wife and I married, we were determined that we would find a child who needed a home. When a pregnant 16 year-old and her family arrived at my wife’s church nearly four years ago, we instinctively knew what our response must be. Of course, we worried about lots of issues surrounding adoption but decided that families are constructed of love not DNA. Moreover, as we strove to be faithful practitioners in God’s water-washed kingdom, we needed to let our concerns wash away, too. We knew that if any of us are to be a kingdom people, then sacrificial love must be at the core of who we are, of our church communities, and of our homes. That included our home. So, we said “yes” to a young girl and her baby, transforming two ministers into one family.

The decision was not an easy one. But it was one that felt “second nature” when we made it. It felt like second nature because we had read the stories many times and seen first-hand through the countless lives we encountered in the various communities of faith we served that sacrificial love is a life-transforming, community-building act. We wanted to share, in our small way, in contributing to a world reflective of such love and possibility.

I share this story not because my wife and I are some super-Christians or award-winning examples of parenthood. In many ways, we are neither. Rather, I share this story because I hope in some useful way it demonstrates how the transformative narrative of the gospel finds expression in concrete, life-altering, real ways. We are different because of it. Our family exists because of it. Our communities might be different, differently organized, sacrificially bound, and radically renewed when such love of God and neighbor is not just seen as a nice idea but is embodied in thought, word, and deed. The good and terrifying news of the gospel is that we are expected to enact Jesus’ socially, religiously, personally, institutionally, and politically transformative words. It will not be easy, and it will require sacrifice. Such sacrifice is always more readily accomplished when shared with friends, with a community, with a family willing to risk sacrifice and distribute the burden together.

This weekend is YHC’s family weekend. Families are vital in shaping who we are and who we must become. Also, families come in many configurations. Each configuration’s potency is not determined by origin but by intent. May this family called Young Harris intend to be such a place where a kingdom of love is manifest and a new community of shared transformation is embraced.

Have a wonderful week, brothers and sisters.

What’s Your Sign

What’s your sign?

I don’t know about you but that question conjures up images of discos, leisure suits, gold chains, and mood rings with the Bee Gees—somewhere in the background—supplying the soundtrack.

I can almost smell the Hai Karate!

Whether characteristic or caricature, it is both amazing and interesting how some images or phrases capture the essence of a certain moment and convey that essence beyond its allotted time and space. They become a symbol, a sign.

In the church, we are overrun with signs. From crosses to sacraments to clerical garb, signs are everywhere. These signs convey something as well. They convey some aspect of faith forward and outward. They tell a story. They express theology. They point beyond themselves. Pointing beyond themselves, that is the function of a good sign.

A sign is never meant to be an end unto itself. If it is an end unto itself, then its value is only as significant as the essence of the sign. A sign that says STOP is only good, only effective if we understand that sign to designate a potentially life-changing opportunity lying just ahead. Understanding that the STOP sign is more than just some painted metal is essential to the ordering of a good traffic citizenry and preserving life. A good sign is always meant to retain something of itself while pointing the viewer to something in addition to itself. As a conduit to something else, a sign grows in significance. It begins to expand in dimension, in purpose, in power. It taps into something greater than its original, limited nature might offer. Like a kind of visual metaphor, a sign takes the familiar and directs our attention in another, possibly unexpected way.

This rehearsal of the meaning and function of signs might seem elementary. It is. But, it is, nevertheless, important to be reminded. For the early church, such reminding was necessary, too.

Early in the church’s history, a group thought it an abomination to place signs or images in the church. This group, called the Iconoclasts, went around destroying any image or visual sign related to the faith. They took the commandment from Exodus to have no graven images both to heart and, as the church eventually decided, too far. They forgot or never appreciated the difference between idols and icons.

But, an important difference exists.

Idols as those things that—like a bad sign—have stop pointing beyond themselves. In fact, an idol is really a corrupted sign. An idol is a sign that previously pointed beyond itself, engendering a sense of power and reverence into that sign, only to take that engendered power and reverence and point it back onto itself, misdirecting the good-faith trust of the observer solely onto the sign and into the sign. The sign replaces the thing the observer previously thought the sign pointed to. This delusion works for a little while until the observer asks something of the sign it is not able to offer. Because, while representing the power of something signified, the sign does not contain the power of the thing signified. In many respects, this stealing the power of one thing and inappropriately redirecting it back onto itself is the very definition of original sin.

That is what happens in the Garden of Eden story. In that narrative, Adam and Eve are told that God is the source of the knowledge of what is good yet by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve presume to take God’s place, positioning themselves at the center of their own moral gaze, misrepresenting their own import and potency. This putting ourselves where we do not belong is the very definition of sin, e.g., theft is the placing ourselves in ownership of that which is not ours, adultery is the placing of ourselves in a position of relationship that is not ours, vengeance is the placing ourselves in the position of judgment that is not ours, etc.

An icon, on the other hand, is an image that consistently points beyond itself, capturing the attention of the observer and redirecting the observer’s attention through the iconic image to something greater than itself, e.g., the horrific means of capital punishment called the cross points us to the hopeful, empowering story of the crucifixion and resurrection. In this way, the church differentiated idol from icon. The church affirmed the function and role of images while rejecting the sin of literalism couched in the Iconoclasts’ good intentions. The literalistic interpretation of that passage from Exodus was a repetition of sin because the Iconoclasts took a previous misstep when they misplaced scripture itself.

The Iconoclasts confused scripture, i.e., the words of God, with Christ, i.e., the Word of God. This confusion meant that scripture no longer acted as a conduit, an icon, directing our theological thoughts and considerations to and through the person of Christ but stopped those theological thoughts and considerations at the text itself. Scripture became an idol. Whenever this stopping short and stopping with scripture happens, the sacred texts of our faith move to the fore, and we begin to see the shortcomings of the texts when asked to be the primary arbiters of all truth and fact.

Those sacred texts cannot possibly, on their own, bear the scrutinizing weight of our theological investigations when we try to convey to them the power and import only meant for the Second Person of the Trinity. Under such burdensome weight, the sacred texts invariably fail our best-intended efforts and us. The sacred texts of the faith while essential are not perfect and are filled with difficult, often contradictory narratives and claims, e.g., why in three of the gospels is Jesus crucified on Friday and in John’s gospel he is crucified on Thursday? A literalist reading of the text might find this discrepancy theologically debilitating or necessarily ignored. Either way, the text cannot, if it is its own witness, withstand the rightfully offered scrutiny such discrepancies provoke. It was for this very reason that Thomas Langford—a United Methodist theologian—surmises the Methodist Church rejected biblical literalism when biblical literalism first began to circulate in the middle part of the 20th century. Biblical literalism was a repetition of original sin because it placed scripture in a central position of the faith reserved solely for God and denied scripture its inspirational function. As an idol, the best we can do is mine the sacred texts for “scientific” data, “historical” facts, and “eternal” truths, delimiting our theological imaginations and robust intellectual engagement with the text and the faith. As icon, the text frees our intellects to engage faith inspirationally and fully, always pointing us to something (someone) greater that itself and ourselves. As fact-book, scripture is poorly suited to the task, filled with errors, inconsistencies, and gaping holes. As faith-book, scripture is well positioned to inspire and shape imaginations.

There is always a temptation for individuals and institutions to repeat this original sin, centrally placing ourselves and our ends upon ourselves. As individuals, this happens when we think we are self-sufficient or fully worthy of others’ adulation and ultimate adherence. As institutions, this happens when we think that we exist to ensure our own perpetuity, rather than to serve the greater good of kingdom and community.

This week in chapel we are considering the signs of faith. We are considering how those signs inform and inspire faith. We, also, are considering how we, too, serve as signs, as symbols, as icons of faith. As this week begins, I invite us all to explore what others see in us. Do they see just us or us and something, someone greater that we serve? It is always my prayer that my life and work becomes bifocal, allowing others to see me as I truly am and to see God and God’s love simultaneously. It is a challenging task, a daunting call but essential to whom I am to be in the role as ambassador of Christ as the Apostle Paul appoints us to be: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

An ambassador supplies an interesting image. Ambassadors are both themselves and the proxy for someone else simultaneously. Like a good icon, good ambassadors are both personally present and individually transparent. As good ambassadors, who do we represent while traversing the halls and sidewalks of YHC? What sign do we offer? What sign must we offer? Let’s find out together.

See you in chapel.

Have a wonderful week.

The Beloved Community

The Beloved Community

 

Pour our your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,

and on these gifts of bread and wine. 

Make them be the body and blood of Jesus Christ,

that we may be for the world the body of Christ

redeemed by his blood. 

 

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,

one with each other,

and one in ministry to all the world,

until Christ comes in final victory

and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

 

These words, taken from the last part of the Eucharistic prayer, were heard by millions, if not more than a billion, people, yesterday, as churches across the globe celebrated World Communion Sunday.  These words from part of the prayer called the epiclesis.  The epiclesis is that portion of the prayer where the Holy Spirit is invited down upon the elements.  This mixing repeats a regular movement of faith where the Divine and the material meet to produce something new, something transformed and transformative. 

 

In the creation stories of the Hebrew scriptures, God is said to have knelt down and breathed into—literally, inspiring—mud by a river bank, making “man a living soul” as the King James Version so poetically describes it.  In the beginning of the gospel accounts, the Holy Spirit is said to be “visited upon Mary,” again, merging divine with material to incarnate the Second Person of the Trinity.  At Pentecost, in an encore of the creation and incarnation stories, the disciples gather in an upper room, locking the world out, only to be intruded upon by the Holy Spirit, freeing them as the re-constituted body of Christ.  On each occasion, God’s Spirit plus created substance unite to become God’s body, God’s presence on earth. 

 

In the Eucharistic prayer, there is much debate over “real” presence.  For centuries, intra-Christian disputes have raged as to the substantive or symbolic nature of God’s presence found in the bread and wine.  (By the way, the United Methodist position is that Christ’s presence is real but understood to be so “mysteriously” not transubstantively or consubstantively or symbolically.) While such debates are interesting as theological exercise, they may distract us from a second and equally “real” incarnation of Christ’s presence understood manifest because of the epicletic prayer. 

 

Note the words from the first part of the prayer:  “Pour our your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.  Make them be the body and blood of Jesus Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ . . . .”  In this prayer, not only are there assertions made concerning the “real” presence of Christ found in the elements of bread and wine but, also, in the elements of flesh and blood of our bodies that are understood to constitute Christ’s body.  The stuff of the divine, i.e., Holy Spirit, co-mingles with the stuff of the earth, i.e., us, to reprise Christ’s role as body for the whole world. 

The social and practical consequences to this claim are significant.  As the body of Christ, the people of God called church are not just in the presence of Christ but become Christ for the world.  Moreover, this united existence reminds us that we exist as something greater, more complex than simply as individuals.  As the old hymn imagines, this incarnation as the community of Christ is but a “foretaste of glory divine.” 

As a foretaste, the body incarnated in the Eucharistic prayer is not meant to be descriptive of some heavenly, exclusively future banquet removed from this realm of existence.  Such an understanding diminishes the present potency of Christ’s epicletic incarnation.  Such a distancing forces the transformative impact of the good news of the Christian story to some distant shore, impotent to affect the present needs of a world ravaged by the inexorable, often violent touch of individualism and personal gain.  How would such a delay of God’s impact ever be a faithful interpretation of the good news to the poor and the setting at liberty those who are oppressed that the gospels presume?

On the contrary, the banquet that we are tasting in the Eucharist involves an invited intrusion of the Divine into our present reality, beginning the future immediately, expecting present results that emerge from a people united for God’s liberating, redeeming work.  In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently embraces this idea of our mutuality as a redemptive, socially transformative act.  In that work (responding in part to recalcitrant Methodist clergy . . . mea culpa), King states:   

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.    

This single garment of human destiny King calls the Beloved Community.  That Beloved Community is a real, achievable society where the needs of persons outweigh needs for more things.  That Beloved Community is a community where love for neighbor outweighs the love of self-gain.  That Beloved Community is the very same body constituted in the Eucharist as Christ’s body.  This body is a community where Christ’s body is not just symbolically hoped for but actively experienced and seen in a public, compassionate people.  That Eucharistic body is the “foretaste,” a precursor to what all our communities might become.

This week, a group of students from Young Harris is leaving for a fall break mission trip.  The purpose of this trip is to assess the intersection of race and faith and discover how our suppositions about both and the assumed appropriate delay in action by communities of faith had and has dire consequences for our communities and our witness as the body of Christ.  We will travel to Asheville, North Carolina to learn about the consequences of presumed “appropriate” delay in active reconciliation and participate in programs seeking to overcome decades of neglect in active reconciliation and the persisting consequences of that neglect.  We will strive to make the body a present reality both for a community of the disenfranchised and for us, transforming both in the process.  Through God’s inspirational presence, we just might become the living embodiments of God’s good news to the poor (i.e., overcoming our own impoverished understandings of the lingering power and presence of racism) and liberation to the oppressed (i.e., freeing us from our apathetic complacency and reticence to action).  May this be, for us, the start of a completely new world.  May this new world become the incarnation of a new world communion. 

May God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.  Have a great fall break.