Out on the street tonight there are ghosts and ghouls, hobgoblins and foul fiends, witches with wands containing a core of dragon heartstring and boy wizards with scars shaped like lightning bolts, and Marvel superheroes and Disney princesses. In one of the local supermarkets tonight when I was doing my grocery shopping there was a surgeon wearing green scrubs, a theatre hat, and a white coat with blood on it. “I’m really worried, I don’t know if he’s real or if it’s for Halloween,” someone said to me. I am not even kidding. I gaped a bit and failed to lend voice to the thought that if he were “real” he wouldn’t have been let out of the door dressed in those — trust me, I’m a doctor, and all that.
Halloween isn’t really my thing. The commercial parts of it, the trick-or-treating and the wee beasties and the pumpkins. Eh. I don’t disapprove of it (and there is Haribo on my kitchen bench, should Elsa or Iron Man come a-knocking). I don’t think it’s evil or that it’s glorifying evil, an accusation that has been levelled at it by at least one Christian commentator this week. It simply isn’t my cup of tea, in really much the same way (and for a number of the same reasons) that neither zombie films nor Valentine’s Day are my cup of tea.
But there is an awful lot of nonsense around at this time of year about the un-Christianity of Halloween. Well, pish-posh, I say to that.
I’ve been having a think about what the night before All Hallowstide really is and what it might mean to someone like me. The eve of an ancient festival when we remember all the saints of all the ages and all the souls that we have loved and lost. It is not an unusual thing in Judeo-Christian traditions to keep the eve of a festival as much as the festival itself. On Christmas Eve, remembering Mary and Joseph as they journeyed towards Bethlehem. In the tradition that I keep, the dusting and polishing and vacuuming of Holy Saturday is an observance and a service every bit as important as the rolling away of the stone from the tomb on Easter Day. And I remember the first time I learned about Erev Yom Kippur: that on the eve of the great Jewish festival of repentance, before Jews can ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, they must first ask their fellow humans for forgiveness on the day before.
This weekend we keep the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. A pair of feasts that sit alongside each other and are very different in their own ways: one resplendent with the splendour and razzmatazz of the Kingdom, the other peaceful with the memory of all those who have gone before us to a place where there is no pain and no suffering. And at the same time a two-day season that is all mixed up together, all part of the same thing, remembering that there is no way of separating out the saints of our lives and the souls of our departed.
This weekend, I will think about St Luke, the patron saint of physicians, whose own feast day was celebrated just a couple of weeks ago. As we sing for all the saints on Sunday morning, I’ll waft up some smoke especially for him. As I remember the work that Luke did, I’ll also think about the work that I do and the people whose lives and deaths I was a part of. I’ll remember people who died peacefully and people who died awfully and people who I never met until they had already died, and I’ll think of the people they left behind. There are some who I will remember particularly. I said on All Souls Day last year: I take the time to sit, this weekend, with all of the not-forgetting that I do, every single day, through all the rest of the year.
I will think, as I always do for a while, of George Wilson, who I met in the first church I ever called home. He was a chorister there for 78 years and besides that there was one sunny morning in June 1953 when he was a chorister for Queen Elizabeth at her coronation. I think about George because I am certain that he is there with the saints, dancing and singing and having a blast on the heavenly organ.
I will think this year of Nelson Mandela, a saint for this age and to all the world. He too loved and was beloved, and left behind people who see him no longer. It is right and important that he is remembered with the souls of the departed, just as it is right and important that he is celebrated with the saints of the ages.
I will think of those who have died in the service of their country, and those civilians who have died as a result of war. It never feels like a coincidence that the next thing we’ll be remembering is the Armistice and they who shall grow not old.
I will think of all the people whose names we read out at St Mary’s on All Souls Day and whose names we keep safe on the High Altar through the year, every one the name of someone who is missed.
I will think of the people who I love and who I see no longer. I’ll remember the good times and the bad times and the times at the end, and I might even get cross at them for a little bit about the times that they’ve missed. I’ll tell them that they are loved still. I’ll remember that they aren’t gone, not really. I’ll remember them in the tears and I’ll remember them in the holy glitz, and I’ll send up a waft of smoke for them too.
But before we remember the saints of the ages and the souls of the departed, there is a thought that suggests that the practice of dressing up like Lord Voldemort or Jacob Marley is less about the Haribo on my kitchen bench than it is about being able, on this night, to look death in the face, to laugh at it, and to declare that it shall not win. As the veil between heaven and earth lifts, it is that thought that is at the root of all that is holy and all that is true:
That death is not the end.
That it shall have no dominion.
That the people we remember are those who lived and who died and who will rise again in glory.
And that until that day, all is now well and everyone we love is safe with God.
Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.