Life, Death, and Halloween

(the following article was written by Pastor Bob for the Bennington Banner‘s “Speaking of Religion” column, published 10/29/2016)

It is that time of year again, when we collectively celebrate the creative combination of candy, costumes, and the occult. I’m all for candy, especially chocolate (by the way, I heard there’s a recall on all chocolate peanut butter cups, so bring them to me and I’ll be happy to take care of them for you). And costumes are fine by me, and the more creative the better. My favorite costume growing up was when I went as a bag of jelly beans, and it’s pretty easy if you’re looking for a last-minute idea: one very large clear plastic bag and a bunch of smallish balloons and you’re good to go.

But I have a hard time understanding why we celebrate evil and death as a culture. I suppose it is not required that we celebrate death during Halloween. After all, we’re pretty good at gutting the original meaning of other holidays (see Easter and Christmas) and turning them into fun times with family and friends and food and whatnot. We can also do that with Halloween, ignoring the origins and meaning, and just go straight for the candy and costumes. But even still, the celebration of evil and death is hard to escape when we’ve got little plastic graveyards in the front lawn, and cute little grim reapers going door to door.

As you may have heard somewhere along the line, “Halloween” started as All Hallows’ Eve, which tells you a bit about the origin. “Hallow” is old-fashioned language for “Holy.” Hallow is same word that we usually use in the Lord’s Prayer (or the “Our Father” if you prefer), which is the prayer that Jesus taught his followers, found in the Bible in Matthew 6:9. The prayer starts like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” In other words, we’re praying to God, acknowledging that his name (which represents all of who God is) is holy, set apart, and above all else. All of this to say that the “Hallow” in Halloween means “holy.”

To make a long story medium-sized, the ancient (and still-celebrated) Christian holiday called All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day), is observed on November 1. Different traditions and cultures hold to different types of celebrations, but the general idea is that it is a day for the church to celebrate and remember the lives of all Christians that have died and are in heaven. In ancient times especially, this was indeed a very special and holy day. And even today we would do well to stop and reflect on those we know and love who have passed away, and our unity with them even though they have passed to the next life.

Of course this is an over-simplification, and our traditions of donning costumes, carving pumpkins, and going door-to-door for candy all have fascinating and murky origins. And throw some harvest celebrations in the mix and you’ve got quite a witch’s brew, so to speak. But if All Hallows’ Day is November 1, that makes All Hallows’ Eve fall on October 31. So if November 1 is a high holy day, then October 31 is the day when, in a certain sense, all hell breaks loose, for at least one night, which we’ve expanded to roughly a month, because hey, any excuse to eat more candy corn!

Someone on the radio a while back sang a song that went something like this: “Every single one of us has a devil inside” (and it’s probably on the oldies stations by now). Is Halloween our chance to let that devil out to play for a while? The problem is that, yes, we do have a devil inside, but I’m afraid that if we revel in and celebrate the devils, the evil within and without, and even death, then we’ll lose our way and miss out on the life and joy and happiness that we’re made for. Someone much wiser than I once said: “We become what we celebrate.”

I haven’t been doing this Pastor thing for very long, but I’ve had the honor of leading five funerals so far this year, and I’m certain there will be more sooner or later. One thing I notice during a funeral is that no one is celebrating death. No one is happy about suffering on those days. No one thinks it is fun that evil has left its mark. Yes, we celebrate the life that was lived, and mourn our loss together, but we certainly aren’t reveling in death itself.

Speaking of death, zombies seem to be popular these days, especially on TV. I’m rather certain that more than one zombie will ring our doorbell in a few days. Zombies too have a long and storied history, but they are most famous for being “undead.” They are dead bodies that have somehow come back to a death-life, and they spread their death-life to the living.

Would it be too sacrilegious to think of Jesus as the ultimate zombie? Or perhaps the anti-zombie? It is historically verifiable that Jesus lived on this earth about 2,000 years ago. And he died on a cross, and he was really and truly dead after taking on all the evil and death in the world. He came back to life, but not a death-life. He, being fully God and fully man, defeated death and came back to life-life. Even if we feel alive in some sense, we are walking in spiritual death if we haven’t yet received Jesus’ death-defying life. Jesus, the ultimate undead one, seeks to spread his true life to the walking dead.

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, which seeks to celebrate and share the faith, hope and love we find in Jesus.