These final days of October are putting us Virginians in a Kierkegaardian-type state of existential fear and dread. A hurricane called “Frankenstorm” has hit us hard. We are also being slammed with TV political ads, robocalls, mailed flyers, Tweets, and knocks on the front door, making sure that we remain on high alert. This is “the most important election of our lifetime,” we are being warned, on which everything about our country hangs in the balance. Finally, it’s almost Halloween. The zombies came out this past weekend for their annual walk through Carytown here in Richmond, reminding us (as though we had forgotten) that our world is filled with danger, darkness, evil, and death.
This is why I am looking forward to October 31. It will be All Hallows’ Eve. None of my Baptist family members and friends will be celebrating it with me, nor will anyone be talking about “the real meaning of Halloween,” or saying things like “Let’s keep the Hallows (saints) in Halloween.” However, I learned years ago in seminary that the Christian church has its own calendar. The times and seasons of God are not the times and seasons of the modern-postmodern age, the secular culture, political movements, national government, international affairs, local weather, or even individual free choice. Therefore, those of us who are in church ministry must teaching our congregants to observe these holy days, and how to track their lives according to the theological gospel represented in this calendar. Personally, I am far more fearful about the church becoming tradition-less and losing its distinctive history, identity, and mission than I am about the convergence of a hurricane, presidential election, and Halloween.
All Hallows’ Eve (October 31) is the day before All Hallows’ Day, or All Saints’ Day (November 1). This is the time for remembering and honoring all the saints, known and unknown, who are the departed faithful. These men and women went before us, bearing witness in their own times and places to the holiness of God in Jesus Christ. They are now that “great cloud of witnesses,” surrounding us as we attempt to do here and now what they did then and there.
All Hallows’ Eve and Day assume that an enduring, mystical bond exists between the saints who are living and the saints who are dead. This is the communio sanctorum, or “communion of saints.” For some, this conjures up images of ghosts or spirits; but I interpret it as the truth that believers today participate in the same Christ and share the same faith with believers who are no longer with us. We are one with them, and they are one with us, in yearning for the completion of God’s salvation in the Kingdom of Christ. The beliefs, understandings, and practices of our faith-ancestors have been passed along to us, and are now embedded in us as our spiritual-theological-ethical DNA. In addition, residues of their faith became flesh in their human words, and these writings are now our rich inheritance.
So, how will I observe and celebrate All Hallows’ Eve and Day? How will I commune with the saints, remembering and honoring them? First, I will pray a prayer of thanksgiving. I will thank God for those who deeply instilled their faith in me (such as my mother Virginia and my home church pastor D. H. Daniel). I will thank God for my seminary professors (especially Frank Stagg and Eric Rust), who loved the Lord with all their minds. Their minds still fill and teach mine. I will add to this growing list the names of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, and Paul, whose faith still shapes and directs me. Finally, I will thank God for the witness of such theological greats as Augustine, Luther, Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, Newbigin, and Neuhaus. I am surrounded by their witness through their writings, like a “great cloud.”
While everyone is out trick-or-treatin’, or attending a Halloween costume party, I plan to settle down in my easy chair with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio, his doctoral dissertation and first published work. I read it last year, but want to return to his “positive presentation” on the church in chapter five, where he writes about “the church-community that could not bear anything, were it not borne by Christ.” I need to hear that. I need to commune for a while with this martyred saint, especially during these days of fear and dread, facing a hurricane, a national election, the fiscal cliff, terrorist attacks, and a host of other dangers, both real and imagined. I need to be encouraged to a stronger eschatological hope and persevering faithfulness: Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Happy All Hallows’ Eve and Day!
N. Keith Smith