Van Ens: Have a devil of a good time on All Hallows’ Eve (column)
Like trapeze performers suspended in mid-air, Christians 500 years ago in Wittenberg, Germany, felt caught between devils and angels. On All Hallows’ Eve, now shortened to Halloween, worshipers crowded into Roman Catholic churches to pray to saints and escape Satan’s grasp.
Centuries before Oct. 31, 1517, the Roman Catholic Church changed a pagan New Year’s rite into an important holy day to honor saints. Then Christians also prayed for the souls of the deceased, that they might escape purgatory and find solace in heaven.
This explains why Roman Catholics observe All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1. All Souls’ Day follows on Nov. 2 to remember common deceased Christians.
On Oct. 31, 1517, Christians streamed into church. The plain-looking Augustinian monk Martin Luther joined the crowd in town square. He questioned how Roman Catholic hierarchy took advantage of parishioners who worried whether loved ones would escape purgatory. The Pope taught that God offered a divine stock plan. If Christians paid cash, called an “indulgence,” to build churches, then the Pope treated these gifts as assets in God’s stock plan. God gave IOUs to Christian investors. The Pope promised buying indulgences redeemed shares, thereby releasing relatives’ souls from purgatory.
Luther judged this scheme a rip-off and an offense to the Gospel. His heart convinced him that Christ’s salvation was a divine gift, not something we earn by human merit. He wrote down 95 arguments called “theses” against this spiritual self-help scheme.
Luther, a savvy monk blessed with advertising flair, tacked his theses (arguments) on the church’s door for public debate. Today, visitors discover what’s going on at universities by reading posters on bulletin boards. Or kiosks alert shoppers to bargains. Similarly, posting his objections to bad theology brought immediate, high exposure to Luther’s cause.
Moreover, he capitalized on the huge impact made by the convergence of pagan rites and Christian tradition. Centuries before, the Roman Catholic Church ditched efforts to repeal and replace the Druids’ New Year’s celebrations. Instead, priests accommodated what the Church taught to pagan holidays festivals.
Druids had lived in Germany, France and Britain and settled in Celtic countries centuries prior to Christ’s birth. The Celtic New Year’s Eve occurred on the last day of October. It was a time when green leaves turned yellow and crunched underfoot as a sound of decay. Druids quivered in the fall, a season reminding them of death.
They recited folklore that spooked those huddled around campfires. They told how deceased souls’ anger grew if Druids shut doors of homes where these mischievous souls formerly resided. Spurned souls turned devilish. They cast wicked spells. Flying around in black, they made Druids cower in fear around campfires. If refused food and shelter, then these ghoulish spirits tricked living relatives and hexed their lives.
Centuries after the Druids’ demise from Europe, Christian missionaries decided that these stories of the dead playing pranks were so much a part of culture that it was impossible to remove them. Consequently, Church officials chose not to repeal and replace these frightening tales but opted to revise them.
Alongside these horror stories, Roman Catholics remembered how saints gained solace from the Virgin Mary and her Savior-son, Jesus whose death made Christians right with God. Why not revere saints On All Hallows’ Day? This evolved into All Saints’ Day. Invigorating bright news for a dark world.
Martin Luther’s life-enriching message of hope and forgiveness resonated among people harboring deathly fears. Replace and repeal destroys. It spooks fearful losers. Accommodating and reforming what’s faulty is simply heavenly. It inspires bold winners.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.