For all the saints
Halloween can be about something bigger than ghosts, goblins, and gummy bears
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Halloween is here again. For some Christians, it’s a controversial time. They see darkness and evil and want nothing to do with it. For others, it’s a time to jump into the civic life of the neighborhood, to try to love it and redeem it. For most of us, I suspect it’s a time not to think too much at all and just load up on candy. But what about another approach entirely? An entirely appropriate, and even ancient, use of the season is to make it an opportunity to remember the wondrous works of God through the lives of His people throughout history. Halloween is a time “for all the saints” to be remembered and celebrated.
“Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before All Saints’ Day. For medieval Christians, this was a sort of catch-all day to cover “all of the other” saints who did not get their own holiday. This way of thinking usually defined saints in a somewhat limited way— only those believers who had excelled and enjoyed a higher status. At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther challenged this perspective, insisting that all believers were saints and that we could go directly to God through Christ rather than other mediators. It’s no coincidence that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church on Oct. 31. His Reformation was all about Halloween, at least the version of Halloween that existed at the time.
Even with this protest, the Lutherans continued to celebrate All Saints Day. So did the Protestants in England. But instead of being a day about medieval saints, they truly put the focus on all saints. The prayer for the day in the Book of Common Prayer speaks of the fellowship of “thine elect” who make up “the mystical body” of Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s a day about the whole Church, all believers. Those who have already died are remembered and held up as godly examples for the rest of the saints to imitate. All Saints is a sort of spiritual Memorial Day.
This way of thinking about Halloween also connects it with Reformation Day. After all, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin were saints, holy believers sanctified by God’s Spirit. And they did mighty works for the Church. Today, we look back at what they did. We remember their examples, and we call people today to be like the Reformers in their virtues.
We can do the same thing with those saints who lived before the Reformation. We can remember those believers who lived in the Middle Ages, and those who lived in what we often call “the early Church.” We thank God for Athanasius of Alexandria and aspire to have his courage, even when the odds were against him. We remember Augustine of Hippo, and we give thanks to God for the doctrines of grace that were so widely promulgated thanks to Augustine’s influence.
And we can go even further back. We can, along with Hebrews 11, remember the saints of the Old Testament. We should remember the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. We should remember the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets. Even martyrs are listed in the “Hall of Faith.”
By implication, we can likewise honor the memory of the New Testament saints. We can see Peter’s boldness and Paul’s determination to teach and protect the true gospel. We can see John’s theological depth, and we can remember his experience of exile and persecution. We can remember Timothy, as well as his mother and grandmother. We do not do this in order to elevate them beyond measure or to seek a favor for them apart from Christ. No, instead, we see the good things that God, by His grace, did in and through them, we give thanks for this, and then we teach others to imitate their godly examples.
In fact, All Saints’ is a perfectly appropriate occasion to remember those recent saints, godly believers who helped to found our congregations, who sacrificed on behalf of our communities, or who taught us the Holy Scriptures and how to pray. Halloween (All Saints’) is a great day to give thanks for Charles Spurgeon, William Wilberforce, Fanny Crosby, James Boice, or Aunt Betsy.
This proposal might not be able to compete with the truckloads of candy that are on offer. For those who celebrate in that way, it doesn’t have to. It can be added atop it. We can work these themes into our prayers and conversation around the breakfast table. We can use the occasion to read stories about these godly believers. And we can have these memories and images in mind when we sing “For All the Saints.”
Finally, All Saints’ Day (Halloween) is not just about the past. It’s also about the future, those brothers and sisters with whom we will spend eternity. As we seek to imitate their example now, we are also walking in the way that leads to our final home, that everlasting fellowship and communion of all the saints—of all believers— as we live together with God in Christ forever.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.