Thursday, October 28, 2010

Borrowed: The Story of Halloween

The Real Story!
Father Augustine Thompson, O.P.,

The Truth About HalloweenWe’ve all heard the allegations. Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped Church suppression. Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival. If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American. Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety.

It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on Oct. 31 — as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints or "All Hallows" falls on Nov. 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to Nov. 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland. The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, "All Hallows Even" or "Hallowe’en." In those days, Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on Nov. 2. This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.

So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory? What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland, at least, all the dead came to be remembered — even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar.

But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween. Our traditions on this holiday centers around dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague — the Black Death — and she lost about half her population. It is not surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife. More Masses were said on All Souls’ Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality.

All Souls DayWe know these representations as the "Dance Macabre" or "Dance of Death," which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people — popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. — into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls’ Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life. But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades and even more macabre twist.

But, as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible. Where on earth did "trick or treat" come in?

"Trick or treat" is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween, and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics.

During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred.

Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against their oppressors. The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on Nov. 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled.

Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes’ Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat!

Guy Fawkes’ Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But, buy the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to Oct. 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics.

The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the Unites States by the early 1800s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.

Witches - 
All Souls - All SaintsBut what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already "ghoulish," so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed. So, too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.

The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it.

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This article is written by Father Augustine Thompson, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and reprinted here with his permission. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Who is the Pharisee?

Not long ago, someone used the term Pharisee in my combox.  This term, or its adjective 'Pharisaical' get tossed around quite a bit in the Catholic world.

Its been tossed in my general direction more than once.  I would like to examine what this term seemed to mean when Jesus used it and what it has come to mean today.

In the Gospel of Matthew we hear the term a few times.  It ranks right up there with 'hypocrite' in Jesus' Good Book!  Not a term of endearment then, it is not a term of endearment now, either.

If we are going to toss, or have tossed at us, a term, I think we should know what it means.

The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that arose during the 2nd century BC.  They were not the 'ruling' sect but were known to be keepers of the Law (Torah).  They believed in life after death.  They called to faithfulness to The Law even in the face of potential martyrdom.  They believed in the oral tradition of the Torah, as opposed to the literal view of the Torah held by the Sadducees.  They tried to impose the purity rituals outside of the Temple. They may have had a great effect on the building of the Second Temple.

The Pharisees were the most popular sect among the general Jewish population and we would see their practices today as the most democratic.  We can also see how their beliefs echo in Christianity.  They believed in the resurrection of the dead.  They believed in free will, but they also believed that God knew what would ultimately happen.  They believed that all adults should follow the Law, not just the order to create a holy nation.

Some Pharisees were certainly stricter with regard to following the Law than were others.  In a Jewish document called the Talmud, seven types of Pharisee are described.  Only one of the seven types can easily be seen in a favourable light.  It would seem that Pharisees knew they were not perfect and were not always loving toward God.

I find it interesting to note that after the destruction of the Second Temple, of all the sects that were in the Temple only the Pharisees emerged in any recognizable form.  They are considered by many to be the precursors to Rabbinic Judaism, which is the most common form today.

So what was it about the Pharisees that Jesus was criticizing so harshly?  They are referred to, in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 15 gives us a good look) as a 'brood of vipers', a white-washed sepulchre and other un-kind terms.

There seem to be a couple of things going on here.  Jesus seemed pretty clear that he did not like those who were so intent on the Law that they ended up violating God's other laws (Matthew 15:4-5).  In Matthew 16, the Pharisees got it again when Jesus pointed out that they weren't watching the signs.  According to the notes in the New American Bible (NAB), Jesus was indicating that the Pharisees could not see the coming of the new Kingdom.

Later in the same chapter, the disciples are told to reject the leaven of the Pharisees.  Again from the NAB, leaven is seen to mean teaching.  By telling his disciples to reject the teachings of the Pharisees, He is paving the way for the new, messianic Kingdom.

In Matthew 23: 24, we get the gnat/camel reference.  Jesus is telling them that they are ignoring larger laws by getting hung up on little ones. In verses 25-26 the Pharisees are being called to task for showy, outward displays of piety that have little actual devotion behind them.

It goes on...

In my experience, the invective "Pharisee" is usually lobbed by someone who has a problem with a particular teaching of Catholicism, or perhaps has a problem with her authority generally.

Liturgy is a fine example.  Catholic liturgy, particularly the Mass, has a structure to it.  In the Roman Missal are found the rubrics for the Mass.  In the simplist form, a priest is to "Say the black and do the red", black being the spoken parts of the Mass, the red being the actions of the Mass.

People trying to improve liturgical standards (ie. 'follow the rules') are seen as unbending, uncharitable etc.  Sometimes we probably are, and for THAT we can be chastised.  But should we be chastised for following the rules given to us?

In the case of liturgy, I think this is not a valid chastisement.  The Mass is something we share we all participants throughout the world and throughout Christian history.  It is all the same Mass.  In a sense, the Mass is a window to Heaven.  When one, cleric or lay-person enforces changes of his or her own authority, it is as if they get fingerprints on that window to heaven, and cloud the view.  Liturgical law is there to keep that window clear.  We owe it to all mass-goers through time and history.

In the case of someone who seeks to follow non-liturgical Church law, a similar principal applies.  If something being adhered to is a valid Church law (doctrine, dogma...) we are supposed to do our best to adhere to it.  If we do that with pride and showiness, then certainly the pride is to be chastised.  If someone is merely going through the motions to make him or herself appear good, well that is a sin as well.  Calling someone a Pharisee simply because they insist on following the law is making a judgement call on their motives and the state of the soul...and we are NOT supposed to judge that.

The problem is not adherence to the law. Jesus tells us to follow the commandments, to do as he tells us.  Given the the Church is the Body of Christ with Christ as its head, then we are to follow the Church as well.

And those rule-following Pharisees were the ones who survived the destruction of the Temple.  A sort of Jewish 'remnant'.  Hmmm.

I know there are many different references that could be called upon here with regard to obedience, tradition and law and this post could keep me busy for days.  For now, I will end with this:

We must all be mindful of our tendency to sin, including that always sneaky sin of Pride.  Given what I've just learned of Pharisees though, I'd say that they were not necessarily a whole lot worse than the rest of us.  They had a lot of good going for them that is not mentioned in Scripture.  They were however a visible representation in Jesus' time of the Jewish status quo, and I think maybe that's why they were held up as an example of what not to do.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Naming Hope

I deal with at least three chronic conditions.  None are fatal, but they can render life rather challenging.

In trying to improve my health, lately I have been researching my diagnoses.  I have discovered that many people seem to become 'diagnosis collectors'.

I think I might have this tendency, so what I say bears no malice whatsoever!

One has to wonder why people become collectors of diagnoses.  I think I may have it.  It has to do with hope.

It seems people believe that if they find just find the right diagnosis, the illness can be cured, or at least successfully treated. 

In the case of some illnesses, of course this is true.  In the case of far too many others it is not.  At least not now.  There are a host of conditions which the medical community has trouble diagnosing, never mind treating.  Two different conditions may be given the same diagnosis, depending on the practitioner, and many conditions seem to show up together.

I think people find it important to be able to put a name to what is bothering them.  I know I do.

Many times in life I've found myself bothered by something persistently, and it's not until I figure out the source that the problem goes away...often almost immediately!  I have sometimes found myself restless and it's not until days later that I realize that I have somehow been reminded of something unpleasant, which is trying to pull itself out of the dark corners of my mind.

I think this is why some of us go after diagnoses.

In Madeleine L'Engle's books (the Wrinkle in Time series.  It's been so long I cannot remember exactly in which this book this occurred) Meg, the protagonist, ends up embracing and naming the Echthroi.  If memory serves, this removes the evil power of the Echthroi.

I am not, of course, advocating embracing evil for any reason, but Meg's action of naming the evil that had been plaguing her family really struck a chord with me. 

For those who are ill, I think the search for a workable diagnosis gives hope.  When you have hope, you have a reason to keep going.  For those who do not have friends and supportive family (and I am discovering how truly blessed I am to have both!) hope may be all they have.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

This Canuck is not so happy today.

Arrest of peaceful Pro-Life protesters 

This happened yesterday at Carleton University in our national capital, Ottawa.

Be proud Canadians. 

Can you think of any other peaceful protest that would be worthy of arrest on a university campus?

I can't.