From Ghoulies, and Ghosties, and Long Leggedy Beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us. Amen.Old Scottish Prayer
That prayer was framed outside my bedroom when I was a kid, the words surrounded by illustrations of illuminated dragons and monsters. I didn’t choose it. I think the print belonged to my parents before I did. When I realized that this year I’d be preaching on Halloween, the prayer immediately came to mind. Halloween can be contentious in religious circles, a bit like the religious scholar who comes questioning Jesus this morning. We hear so many of these interrogations in the Gospel. I can only pray that if you are suspicious of Halloween, today you will walk away, like Jesus’ questioner, believing you have received wisdom. Any wisdom I have to offer I did not generate, if you hear wisdom from me it is borrowed, I assure you, hopefully some of it is borrowed from Jesus.
What is a thinking Christian to do about Halloween?”
My first response is characteristically Anglican. Episcopalians come from a long line of Anglicans who like the middle ground. We like to make room for multiple viewpoints. Doubtless we have households in our congregation who celebrate this holiday with gusto. We also likely have some who abstain. As your priest I will admit, we are excited to take Silas trick-or-treating, and we will probably exercise some care as the years go on about exactly which costumes he will be permitted to choose. I can say, I am happy that this year he is three and is thrilled to be going as one of the characters from Thomas the Tank Engine. Ellis spent much of this week building the costume, and I don’t have theological or ethical qualms about imaginary trains. I’m guessing it will get more complicated as he gets older. I sit somewhere in the middle-ground of Halloween and we cautious, intentional, participation.
One of the ways to engage Halloween as a Christian is to be intentional about Christian practices in this time of year. That is to say, Halloween is not just for children. As a church, we invite you, adults, to participate. Bring a photo or a memento of a loved one who has died with you to place on our altar of remembrance. This year, marking COVID, we are inviting you to write on the chalkboards in the church marking a joy or a grief that you’ve carried without the physical support of your community. It may feel childish. Good. What did Jesus say about childlike faith?
As Christians, it takes intentional work to resist the cultural amnesia about death and loss. This season can be a a time to intentionally and specifically remember those we have “loved but see no longer.” Halloween and All Saints/All Souls can be a time to face the reality of death and of loss.
Ruth and Halloween
Our first reading today comes from the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a good book to read at Halloween. As we pick up the story, Naomi and Ruth find themselves destitute, widows, barely surviving a famine. The words we hear from Naomi are painful. She is in grief. She has lost her husband and sons. Naomi is convinced she is cursed. She has suffered so much death.
Just last week, we finished the book of Job. Both Ruth and Job remind us that our tradition includes grief, includes loss. This last year and a half part of the difficulty for me has been not being able to gather here with you all in a time of so much grief and loss. Some of the losses have been big. We have lost members, we have lost loved ones, there has been so much death. But there have been other losses as well. Members have lost jobs, they’ve lost opportunities. We’ve scaled back baptisms and weddings.
For some of us the loss is more frustrating. For some of our older members, and some of our folks who live alone, the loss of time is particularly difficult. Lost time with grand kids, time with beloved friends, time to travel with a spouse whose health is in decline. That loss is real, and it is hard. Naomi says at one point, “call me mara, because God has made my life bitter.” Our Bible doesn’t clean things up entirely. Scripture holds stories of loss and frustration. If we can’t bring our loss to church, where the heck can we bring it?
Sometimes God is found in the unexpected actions of those who choose to be close to us. Ruth interrupts Naomi’s inner narrative. She does the unexpected. She loves the woman who believes she is cursed. She chooses to be in community, she chooses not to look away from someone who is suffering. The Book of Ruth acknowledges that death and grief are great and powerful mysteries, and then it counters by saying: the power of love is even greater, even more mysterious. God doesn’t act in big miracles in Ruth. No Red Sea is crossed, sight isn’t given to the blind. The miracle in Ruth is love. More about that in a moment, when we turn to the Gospel.
The Ghost Story in Ruth
Before we leave Ruth, one more word about Halloween and the Bible. If you read further Ruth and Naomi make their way back to the land of Judah, and Naomi introduces the younger woman to her kinsman Boaz. A turning point comes on a fateful night. Boaz and the other men are sleeping on the threshing floor. Ruth comes to him and quote unquote “uncovers his feet.” Now, my Hebrew Bible professor at seminary The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams will tell you a couple things about this scene: one, it ain’t his feet that Ruth uncovered, and two, there is a haunting reason the men were huddled together out there on the edge of the wilderness.
Fentress-Williams reads in the story of Ruth a commentary on a specific superstition. These men are huddled up because they are afraid of a demon, a specific demon named Lilith. Stories of demons in the wilderness were common in ancient Mesopotamian cultures. These stories haunt us even today. Part of why I come down on careful participation in Halloween is because the costumes scare me. So many costumes are problematic because they are sexist, racist, or culturally appropriative. Part of why we need to be careful about Halloween is because there are so many stories around us that associate evil with women’s bodies, with other cultures, with those who are different.
Demons or Demonization?
Specific evils: Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, age-ism, these evils haunt us. Real concrete harm is done when we allow these forces to run amok. Some modern feminists have re-claimed Lilith. Some in our congregation may even have once attended a “Lilith Fair” concert, a tour which featured women artists and told the rabbinic story of Lilith as Adam’s first wife, who refused to be subservient to men. When we encounter resistance to Halloween, I think we have to ask ourselves: what has done more damage in our history, literal demons? or the Christian tendency to demonize people who are different?
Ruth is a Moabite. She is not one of God’s chosen. Ruth is a widow. She is counted out. Ruth is exactly the kind of person who would have been demonized and yet, and yet, here is Ruth, title character, hero of the story. Ruth’s love saves Naomi. Ruth comes to Boaz at night, and yes she seduces him, but the end result isn’t evil. It’s love. Ruth and Boaz are counted among the ancestors of King David, among the ancestors of Jesus. Calling yourself a Christian means committing your life to a sacred lineage of cultural outsiders who disrupted the norms of their day.
Halloween, at its best, can be a celebration of that sort of disruption. I dare you to dress up sometime as Ruth. Biblical Ruth, or RBG, you can have your pick. There is a certain sense of playfulness about Halloween (probably why we have made so much of this holiday about kids). Halloween is a time when we allow for mystery, we wonder about the limits of our understanding, and we make room for the supernatural.
The Greatest Mystery is Love
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. He responds with love: Love God, and Love your neighbor. For Jesus the greatest command, the greatest power, is Love. Ruth’s story shows Jesus’ teaching to be true. In the face of death, in the face of loss, in the face of grief, Ruth chooses love. Facing demonization for her ethnicity, her gender, her sexuality, Ruth risks love. Taking risks for love is in our spiritual DNA.
Part of why I remember that prayer outside my door as a kid, about the things that went bump in the night, is that the prayer acknowledges there are limits to our ability to understand and control life. Even with all our science, all of us face the great mysteries of death, of grief, of loss. The prayer holds mystery with an honest lightheartedness. Around Halloween we can dare to be more playful than fearful spiritually. Because for Christians the mystery which has the power to overcome all the evil forces of this world, the greatest mystery is Love.