By Timothy A.R. Cole
Some years ago, I was on exercise with the British Army in Northern Kenya. We were in a makeshift camp, and each night we could hear the Samburu Tribes people singing, drumming, and celebrating a few hundred yards away in the darkness.
After a few days we arranged to go and be with them. In my mind’s eye, they were dancing around a fire, but when we got there, they were in a circle in the moonlight but there was no fire. The other surprising thing was that I imagined the warriors to be grown men. In fact, it turned out to be like a gathering of the youth fellowship I grew up in.
The warriors were all adolescent boys, the oldest being about 17 and the girls were all between 12 and 14, I would guess. We were welcomed and we stayed, and, somewhat embarrassed, joined in the dancing a little. Warriors in that society are single boys and they only remain warriors until they are married.
We may have been a little embarrassed, but there was something strangely familiar in the whole thing, something that perhaps goes back deep into our genetic past.
Tonight is, of course, Halloween, or All Hallows Eve. We are celebrating All Saints tonight because we are celebrating All Souls tomorrow night at the Requiem. This is permissible because, as most of you know, from early times, the main festivals had vigils the evening before.
Like some other Christian festivals, All Saints was moved to be celebrated at this time of year by Pope Gregory in the ninth century to Christianize an existing Celtic pagan celebration called Sow-win (Samhain).
Perhaps that is what moved in my blood in Kenya all those years ago for my ancestors, and I expect, those of most of us here tonight, gathered at this time, halfway between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice, to welcome the harvest and to usher in the dark half of the year. They would let the fires in their homes die out as they collected the harvest and, once gathered, they would light a community fire with sparks from a wheel that symbolized the sun, and then they would sacrifice animals and take flames from the fire to relight the fires in their homes.
They would then feast for three days and three nights. The Celts were not averse to some serious partying! The Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was at its thinnest on this night, and they prepared offerings that were left outside villages for the dangerous spirits and creatures who might cross over into our world. In the Middle Ages, the tradition of the “Dumb Supper” emerged, in which families would invite their ancestors to dine with them and children would play games to entertain the dead while adults updated the departed on what had happened in the past year. Turnip lanterns (latter pumpkin lanterns) also emerged at this time to help ward off evil spirits that might come near.
As we celebrate All Saints tonight, we enter the Christian vision of the world and eternity. The Church we know here, the Church Militant, the Church in struggle here on earth, is only one part of the equation. Tonight we reflect on the Church Triumphant, the Church that is being established more and more each year, soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increasing, as the procession that leads from this life to the next continues, the Church we refer to in the liturgy each week when we hear the words “with Angels and Archangels and the whole company of heaven.”
In this evening’s Epistle, we hear St. Paul explaining how Christ lifts the eyes of human beings to a new reality. It is one in which we are no longer bound by fear of the dark and the dark forces of the spiritual world that must be appeased and avoided. We are no longer spiritually bound (even if we are still physically so) to the earth and the movements of the sun and the unknown forces that drive the weather and the seasons.
“God put this power to work in Christ,” says St. Paul, “when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
Christianity brings freedom from the dominion that held our ancestors in perpetual fear and subjection to forces that appeared to them to hold them utterly at their mercy.
Of course, the ancient patterns are not gone completely. After all, the winter is still coming, the harvest somewhere is being gathered, and, even if we are children of the light, we still know the darkness, and experience the threats of forces that remain beyond our control in our world
We know the same darkness, the same threats, the same subjection to weather accident and chance, but thanks to Christ we see these things from a different perspective. If we are afraid at times, our fear rests upon a profound knowledge of a deeper reality, a reality that does not rely on common victory or a common enemy to unite us. This reality looks not to the light of the moon or of fire or of colored neon lights for solace, but looks to the one true light of God shining in the person of Jesus Christ.
Tonight, we celebrate with the rest, and enjoy the joy and fun of all that goes on around us tonight, but we know that these gestures against the night are only a shadow of the light we come to share here week by week and year by year, a “shadow cast by the one true light that lighteth every man and woman that cometh into the world.” And so we see ourselves not as dancing to distract ourselves from our fears, but as joining the great procession of all the saints that marches from here to there:
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
The Rev. Timothy A.R. Cole is rector of Christ Church, Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.