“Australians are at last embracing Halloween”, blared a recent headline. While not wanting to be a party pooper, I ask whether this is a trend to be lauded or whether it is yet another confirmation of the trend into excluding opposites that increasingly besets Australian political, religious and civil life. Please hang in with me as I try to explain.
Until recently All Saints Day (Nov 1) was a significant festival in the annual Christian cycle, commonly know as the season of ‘All Hallows’. It was a significant festival on the calendar of my 1950’s school days. Church attendance on that day in Singleton (Hunter Valley) in the late 70’s and early 80’s matched Easter attendance and was second only to Christmas, numbering many hundreds.
The festival’s origins can be traced back to the Old Testament where the hoped-for harmony and wholeness expressed in ‘shalom’ would be ultimately fulfilled when, as hoped and longed for, God gathers the righteousness to a ‘high mountain’ (Zion) from where division suffering and conflict is finally banished. Thus, ‘Zion’ expresses a theological/eschatological hope; it is not about geography, although Jerusalem is that ‘high mountain’ , least of all in its biblical context is it an expression of nationalism. Tragically the modern Zionist movement is about the occupation of territory to the exclusion of all others. The biblical concept of a ‘chosen people’ is that they are a conduit for God’s purpose not restricted to themselves, but inclusive of all humanity.
In the New Testament, the question of how and where God is to fulfil the shalom hope for everlasting harmony and peace is famously picked up in the dialogue Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). She asks whether it is to be the Samaritan site of the long gone northern kingdom, or the Judean site of the southern kingdom, Jerusalem. Jesus says neither and goes on to speak of those who worship God doing so in spirit and truth. For Christians the eschatological hope in Zion as a place has been replaced by hope and confidence in Zion as a person, Jesus, who has bridged the gulf between earth and heaven. The Zionist eschatological hope, transferred to Jesus, is wonderfully expressed in John Newton’s hymn:
Glorious things of you are spoken,
Zion city of our God….
See, the spring of living waters, springing from eternal love…
Blest inhabitants of Zion, washed in their Redeemer’s blood:
Jesus, whom their souls rely on, makes kings and priests to serve our God…
The climactic expression of this hope is of course to be found in the opening verses of Revelation 21. Zion, new Jerusalem, is nothing less than a new creation. Because God is completely immersed in the created order in Jesus, division between material and spiritual is abolished, division is gone. God is not to be thwarted, the harmony that was intended in the diversity of creation from the beginning is accomplished. Nothing that is of God is wasted or lost. The frailties and imperfection that inevitably accompany a transient world are gone. The Tree of life which is teasingly mentioned in the Genesis creation narrative (Gen 2:9) finally flourishes and all are gathered around it. In as much that Zion gathers the righteous, it is the righteousness of Jesus shared with all humanity that turns ordinary people into participating saints.
All Saints then is a celebration of life, a celebration of the Giver of life and the eschatological hope for harmony and peace which find their OT origin in Shalom and Zion. In this context it is a celebration of those lives who have gone before us, whose example and influence has shaped us and whose company we continue to share in the Communion of Saints around the Tree of Life.
Now, what of Halloween? There is much speculation about its origin. Is it connected to a northern hemisphere pagan festival associated with the impending darkness of winter? Is it associated with the end of harvest and of the poor going from door to door with a poem or song begging food from the more fortunate who have had a harvest?
As a boy who grew up in the UK, I have no recollection of Halloween. So, what has it morphed into and why is its popularity seemingly on the rise? For many, especially amongst the young, it is simply an excuse for a dress up party and there can hardly be any harm in that, other than the harm associated with excessiveness which can occur at any party.
The more macabre side of Halloween is almost certainly not taken very seriously by the vast majority. It presents as a fascination with death, with ghosts (souls that have found no resting place) with fear, with darkness and a right to play a less than pleasant trick on those who have not favoured you.
Given what we now know of sugar and its connection with childhood and lifelong obesity one might wonder how long the ‘trick or treat’ custom will remain in favour, especially as children appear to make no effort with costume etc, but simply walk from house to house with a plastic shopping bag in the hope of picking up as many sweets as possible.
No, the loss is not so much in what is done, but in what is not done. A tradition of hope, celebrating a life of inclusion and the abolition of conflict and division has been supplanted by something much less. Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech” could be described as a modern song in veneration of Zion. So where is our dream to-day, of what do we dream? What idea do we hold of Zion or is it all lost in mindless materialism?
All Saints Day this year, need not have been reduced to the rather banal if not slightly macabre party time and could have been celebrating shalom in our current context:
· Indigenous culture and its oneness with creation
· The offering of safe-haven for refugees and asylum seekers and a repudiation of the culture of fear that has allowed Nauru and Manus to blight the reputation of all Australians
· The commonality we share with all human beings across the boundaries of wealth, ethnicity and religion.
· The lives of significant contributors to harmony and wholeness who once lived in this street, this suburb across the continent.
I find it particularly tragic that this All Saints tide a significant item of news has been that Australia might join the US in moving its embassy to Jerusalem and in doing so support Israel in its diminishing of the biblical aspiration of Zion’s inclusiveness and shalom, to a nationalistic aspiration for exclusion and superiority – the guarantee of generational suspicion fear and hatred for years to come.