The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

ALL HALLOWS EVE

Delivered 10/31/99
Text: Philippians 1:21-26
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Happy Halloween! Joan Davis sent me a Halloween quiz yesterday. Ready?

  • Why don't witches like to ride their brooms when they're angry? They're afraid of flying off the handle!
  • Where do baby ghosts go during the day? Dayscare centers.
  • What monster flies his kite in a rain storm? Benjamin Frankenstein.
  • What do you get when you cross Bambi with a ghost? Bamboo.
  • What do the birds sing on Halloween? Twick or Tweet, tweet, tweet.

Enough. I suspect there will be gracious plenty "twick or tweet"-ing this evening. Halloween has grown and grown in popularity. Not only kids, either. Adults have fun with this too. I remember one particular Halloween escorting my children on their trick-or-treat foray. Erin was just a little four-year-old, all dressed up in her finest wicked witch regalia. She and David and their friends went up to a front door and knocked. The man of the house opened it and leaned his head out...painted up all green and ghoulish. My little Erin was so nonplused at the sight that she fell backward, toes over teacups, right into the bushes. You had to be there.

In terms of dollars spent, Halloween is now second only to Christmas in expenditures - costumes, candy, decorations, candy, parties, candy. Then add the dental bills - for dentists, Halloween must really ring the register.

Of course, some folks take exception to the celebration. As we hear every year, some of our more conservative churches make no bones about their opposition. They claim that since the holiday is simply a modern version of ancient, satanic traditions which were originated by pagans, Christians should avoid it. They are concerned that anything which would trivialize the evil represented by devils, demons, and goblins should be avoided like the plague. After all, "No one shall be found among you...who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD,"(1) says the Bible.

Others take Halloween and use it as a tool to literally scare the Hell out of people - they take the Haunted House tradition and make it HELL House where costumed participants vividly portray what they believe will be the appalling punishments and unending torture that awaits anyone who dies without making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

For what it is worth, I do not agree with either position. I do believe though, as one of my cyberfriends says, Halloween is "a holiday in need of renovation."(2) First, it is appropriate to admit that its origins are indeed rooted in pagan ritual, the ancient celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced SOW-EN). For the celts, November 1st was the beginning of the new year, so Samhain was a New Year's celebration. But it also was a reminder of death because Samhain was the celtic god of the dead, and the observance came at the end of the harvest season when plants died, trees lost their foliage, and animals went into hibernation.

Legend has it that the Celts believed this was when the ghosts of the dead came back to haunt the living. Specially targeted for terror were those who had not given proper remembrance to their dearly departed. These spirits returned with a vengeance; they rampaged through the land in the form of bats and owls, ghosts and goblins.(3) Scary stuff.

One way or another, and as might be expected, the church did not like its converts participating in pagan celebrations. So as with Christmas and Easter, by the ninth century, we just took it over, in this case building on the theme of death and creating a day to praise God for the lives of the saints who had passed on the year before. Of course the church insisted it be a solemn day of worship and fasting, which was not much fun at all. So the celebration of Samhain moved to the night before and became All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween.(4)

The custom of trick-or-treating? That is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a European custom called "souling." Some historians say that on All Hallows Day, Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. And that was the incentive for folks to give the cakes. The belief of the day was that the dead did not go directly to heaven upon departure from this life but remained in limbo or purgatory for a time, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to paradise.(5) Another tradition says that special Halloween cakes, made of breaded dough, called "soul food" were given to the children of the city, particularly the poor children. It was a feed the hungry program with a lot of extra fun and excitement thrown in. Collecting for UNICEF these days is right in line with the oldest traditions.(6)

For what it is worth, anything anyone tells you about the origins of Halloween are not much more than glorified guesswork. There are almost as many explanations as there are historians. Still and all, as Robertson Davies wrote in the New York Times awhile back,

Halloween deserves a house cleaning. Our strongly superstitious age needs Halloween, but cannot do anything with it in its present degenerate form. Halloween has been thrust too much into the hands of children. Dressing children as ghosts and witches, and sending them out on the night of Oct 31st to demand tribute from the neighbors, or perhaps to proffer collection boxes for a variety of more or less worthy charities, is contrary to the deeper meaning of Halloween.(7)

So how DO we return to a "deeper meaning of Halloween?" Let me offer a simple suggestion. Use it as a reminder of a marvelous heritage of faith, and of one aspect of that faith that we tend to forget...perhaps on purpose. For as many differences exist between the lives of those Christians we remember on an All Hallows Eve or an All Saints Day, there is one thing they have in common - they are gone from us. They have died. They have given up this earthly frame and moved into a heavenly life.

Gee, Preacher, what a wonderful idea! Why didn't we think of that? Take one of the most fun holidays of the year and spend it thinking about death. Sure. Strange as it seems, that is precisely what I have in mind...IF (and this is a big IF)...IF you think of it as a Christian.

How do we do that? Think of death in the same way as the apostle Paul in our lesson from Philippians. He says, "dying is gain." Really? We are tempted to mutter, "not for us, it isn't." We look around the world and see little children dying of exposure and starvation and our hearts are torn because so little is being done. We watch in horror as older citizens waste away in the relentless onslaught of age finally wanting nothing so much as surrender. We see friends knocked down in the prime of life by debilitating disease that finally claims them, and we hate death! We HATE it! Instead of seeing death as sweet release, we think of ourselves and feel a profound emptiness, a deep sense of loss. Loss is the opposite of gain, at least for those of us who are left behind. Think of death as Paul did? Not easy.

Why? Selfishness, obviously. We would much rather not be deserted by our loved ones. My Dad has been gone from me for 20 years; I would love to be able to talk with him again about things of mutual concern. I would like to share church experiences, to talk of preaching and teaching, to ask advice... maybe even to play a little golf. I wish he were here. I know his life today is better by far than anything he ever experienced on this earth (especially the way he played golf), but selfishly, I can still wish he were here.

But there is more. Our thoughts about death, our dislike of it, I think respond to some innate reverence for physical life. We grow up learning that all life is precious. In backyards all over the world there are buried shoeboxes with the remains of pet turtles and parakeets over which children have shed sad tears. Young soldiers return from the horrors of war with reports of nothing so awful than coming face to face with another young soldier from the other side whom they are forced to kill. The abortion debates that continue in our nation center on this belief in the sanctity of life. The nation wept Friday as US Open Golf champion Payne Stewart was remembered - lost in a plane crash...42 years old...too young. There is something about life that we see as grand and glorious which makes its end so utterly depressing.

Perhaps death distresses us so because we see what it does to those who are still here...the family and friends. We feel it. We see Payne's young family suddenly without a father and provider or another without the love and care of a mother. We wonder how they will survive. A close-knit unit is now no longer complete.

On the night my father died, after all the friends and acquaintances had come and gone, the family sat around the kitchen table, talking quietly. We thought about our Dad. We missed him. We were not worried about him...we knew where he was and that he could triumphantly say with Paul, "for me...dying is gain." But finally Mom said, "I've lost my best friend." It was a heart-rending moment, and it still is now 20 years later.

Tennyson wrote in his poem In Memoriam:

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more.
Too common! Never morning wore to evening
But some heart did break.

That is what we hate about death...what it does to those who are left behind.

Then can we ever get to the place of thinking about death as the apostle Paul did? He said, "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better." The Greek word he uses is the word for striking camp, loosening the tent ropes, pulling up the tent pins and moving on. Death is a moving on. William Barclay, one of our century's most prolific but also most down-to-earth New Testament scholars, recalls the terrible days of World War II, when the Royal Air Force stood between Britain and destruction and the lives of its pilots were being sacrificially spent. He writes, "they never spoke of a pilot as having been killed but always as having been 'posted to another station.'"(8)

What will that other station be like? We have only the sketchiest details, but we firmly believe that there is more to life than what we experience here. From week to week we affirm, "I believe...in the life everlasting." We believe that death is not a period but a comma in the story of life. And we know what Jesus said: "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also."(9) No wonder Paul says, "dying is gain." He has a place in heaven set aside for him and his landlord is Jesus Christ.

As to not knowing what lies on the other side, we know all the scripture has to say about it, of course...gates of pearl, streets of gold, bejeweled walls...poetic language to describe something indescribable. No more pain, no more tears, no more death. It will be incredible. I am firmly convinced that it is SO good that we would be miserable in this life if the details were filled in for us. We would not be content to wait and do the work we have been called to on this earth.

Since last year's All Hallows Eve, two of our church members have crossed to the other side: Lib Brogdon and Slick Shepherd. Special friends. Both lived fruitful lives; both in their own way made this world a better place for their being here. Both were, with the apostle Paul, ready "to depart and be with Christ." If either of them could be in this pulpit this morning, I know they would say, "dying is gain."

Two of our members dead in the past year. Really? I remember D. L. Moody's words about dying. "Someday you will read in the paper that D. L. Moody of East Northfield, Mass. is dead. Don't believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that's all...out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint, a body fashioned like unto his glorious body." It was the same kind of confidence that enabled Dietrich Bonhoeffer to say, as Nazi soldiers led him to his execution, "For me this is the beginning of a new life, eternal life." Moody and Bonhoeffer were right, of course. For them, dying was gain.

Years ago I read of a clergyman who was summoned to the deathbed of an old man in one of the slums of London. Flight after flight of stairs he mounted till he came to the topmost flat and found his way into a miserable room with hardly any furniture. There a poor half-starved old soul lay in great pain. As the minister came into the room, he could not help but say, "Oh, but I am sorry for you."

"Sorry for me?" the old man replied. "Why, think of my prospects."

There is the answer to returning to "the deeper meaning of Halloween," All Hallows Eve. Something SPECIAL is waiting on the other side. Not witches and wizards or ghosts and goblins. Rather the wonderful promise of life in the presence of Jesus. And with the hymn writer we look forward to an incredible future:

Oh that will be glory for me,
Glory for me, glory for me;
When by His grace I shall look on His face,
That will be glory, be glory for me.(10)

Happy Day. Happy All Hallows Eve.

Amen!


1. Deuteronomy 18:10-12

2. Charles Henderson, "Halloween: A holiday in need of renovation," http://christianity.about.com/culture/religion/christianity/library/weekly/mcurrent.htm

3. ibid.

4. Graham Fowler, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1999 10 31," #44, 10/27/99

5. Jerry Wilson via internet, http://foundus.com/Halloween/history_.htm

6. Charles Henderson

7. Quoted by Charles Henderson

8. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series, CD-ROM edition, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

9. John 14:2-3

10. Charles H. Gabriel

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