Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Oct. 30, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Oct 30, 2022 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

All Hallows’ Celebration

Oct. 30, 2022

In the words of our Collect, O God, you have called your people to your service from age to age. Do not give us over to death, but raise us up to serve you, to praise you, and to glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Anywhere we go this week it seems everyone is celebrating Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve. Even if you stay home the movie selection bears this into our living rooms. Here we do so in such a playful and faith filled way, one can almost forget that it is now almost entirely secular, which makes it all the more delightful to reclaim it. All Hallows’ Eve is characterized by all sorts of things occurring in darkness; haunted houses, bonfires, scary costumes or masks—originally and long ago conceived of to hide one’s identity from the spirits who came to earth on that night to disturb or trouble us. Children have fun with costumes as their favorite identities so to get to embody them or try them on more than to hide from spirits of the dead. We play with this idea of scary darkness by ‘trick or treating’ at night, as costumed children look for neighbor’s porch lights or dress up for community events.

We tend to focus on the fun cheery or upbeat aspects of this day, or the Hollywood horror movie version, so over-the-top as to be absurd. (Even Issaquah has a Zombie-Walk!) Yet, whether for children or adults, refusing to embrace or at least acknowledge our fears around death or visiting spirits denies they are part of life. It reduces All Hallows’ and soon All Saints’ Day to a veneer which doesn’t even fool the eye! This is an opportunity to bring our fears out from under the bed or up from the basement, those ‘monsters’ like fear of death, of powerlessness, of failure, of irrelevance, disaster, of the stuff of nightmares finding us and frightening us further. Hiding from our fears is as old as humanity I’m sure. Early Christians and pagans wore soot on their faces or masks to confuse the returning spirits, some donning costumes to distract them from knowing their identity.

Some try to remake Halloween by only allowing costumes of ‘positive’ heroes, or by banning ones with blood or skeletons or anything suggestive of death. They become Harvest parties, Costume Day, Character Day, (though I’m happy to report ‘Fall-o-ween’ is now falling out of favor!). I can understand our avoidance of this other side of All Hallows’ Eve; it’s true, a lot of unwelcome hard-to-answer questions arise from a night where the veil between this world and the next grows thin, from wondering if the dead really rise from their graves…

Which both our readings speak of today. We heard about Ezekiel taken by the hand of the Lord, the spirit of the Lord, “He set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley” and the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to those bones, “and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.” Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to tell the breath to come and breathe on them that they might live, and then those bones of the whole house of Israel are on their feet, enfleshed and alive. Ezekiel is a tool in God’s hand, and God says to them “you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act…”

In Matthew, we heard his story of Jesus’ death, how the whole land grew dark in the middle of the day, we heard of his last words, his last breath, the earth shaking, rocks splitting, and “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” When Jesus dies we hear, “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” The King James Bible some of you have known says, he “gave up the ghost”, and others translate the phrase, “and gave up his spirit.” You can hear echoes of the Lord telling Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.” Matthew is making it clear that Jesus’ death took place according to scripture, and draws on the reading from Ezekiel to say so. The emphasis here is not on the physical suffering of Jesus or his emotional state, nor on Jesus dying as a criminal in shame, rather his death was grounded in the Jewish tradition and scripture, and central to God’s plan of salvation. Matthew guides his community to see Jesus’ death as anticipating the resurrection, and what is to come. He says of saints who were raised, “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” 

All Hallows’ is a reminder of human mortality and a time of honoring the dead, in its early pagan Celtic beginnings, the souls of the dead were said to return to their homes. Fires were lit in awareness of this and to help them on their journey to the otherworld, and to frighten evil spirits away from the living! There people might make symbolic offerings of the harvest, fruits, vegetables and animals, hence the ‘Bone-fires,’ or bonfires, are still enjoyed today. It leads us into All Saints’ Day, commemorating all saints, known and unknown, which we will do next Sunday.

Matthew’s emphasis in this reading, as noted earlier, is to understand Jesus’ death as the event which makes possible the resurrection, the fullness of salvation. Through Matthew’s telling we see it as less about fear and human pain, and more a stunning reverent awe and wonderment—that takes us with him too. This sense of All Hallows and All Saints opportune to tell us the spirits of those who have gone before us live on, and that the sight-lines of our faith don’t converge on death, they look ahead to a resurrection horizon we have yet to see ourselves, but which we know is there, for we have heard the whisperings of that holy promise.

A couple days ago I read a post that invited me to reflect on this faith which binds us to what is greater, to (as the hymn says), Christ with us and within us, behind us, before us, beside us. 

Steven Charleston is a Native American elder, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, an author, and the retired Episcopal bishop of Alaska. He writes,

“I have been out walking with ghosts again, the shimmering images of my ancestors, always present, but barely visible, walking before me in the cool shadows of evening. I know better than to talk too much, for silence is the language of the sacred. Instead I listen, as any youngster should, to the wisdom of those who have seen more seasons than can be counted. I receive their thoughts like a benediction. I hold their vision in my mind like a familiar dream. Do not be afraid, they whisper, as we walk on to find the moon already waiting.”

I offer thanks and great appreciation for insights and analysis of Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. in Sacra Pagina, the Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Mn, 1991.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.