Friday, October 30, 2009

Reclaiming Halloween

In the past several decades, many Christian holidays have become increasingly secularized. Sadly, for many American families, Christmas Day is often more about gifts of material goods rather than reflections on the spiritual Gift of God-made-man lying in a manger 2000 years ago. Easter has been overrun by bunnies and baskets of jelly beans; Saint Patrick’s Day is for the leprechauns; and poor St. Valentine peddles women’s lingerie.

To some degree, even Christians get caught up in the hypnotic glow of lights and lawn ornaments, or green beer, or lavish parades and all the other trappings of the secular calendar. Christians are caught between two worlds. Especially as parents, we realize that when Christian holidays become secularized it leaves us straddling the proverbial fence. On the one hand there is the real need to recognize (and FIGHT for) the true religious nature of the holidays; on the other hand, we do not live in a vacuum. We and our children are exposed daily to the culture that surrounds us. We cannot completely shut it out of our lives. My home is not a monastery and my children are not cloistered religious. We must live in this world, even though we are called to an otherworldly purpose.

Many Christians have realized this dilemma and have begun “taking back” these religious holidays. If we must live in the culture, we will do our best to shape the culture in a Christian mold.

And so we come to Halloween…

As the word Hallow-e’en denotes, this holiday is the “eve of all hallows” – which is the evening before the Feast of All Saints. The word hallowed means “blessed” or “holy;” as in “hallowed be thy name,” which we say in the Lord’s Prayer. On Halloween the “holy” ones are the saints. (The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus” which also mean “holy.”) On November 1 we celebrate the lives of all the Saints who have come before us in the faith. So the evening of October 31 marks the vigil of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve), just as December 24 marks the vigil of Christmas (Christmas Eve).

But the holiness of this night has been neglected, ignored for so long that some Christians complain (and rightly so) that Halloween seems more pagan that Christian…and even downright Satanic. Some Christians do still send their children out trick-or-treating but others reject Halloween as a work of the devil. They point to the ancient pagan practices that resemble Halloween and draw the obvious parallels. They sometimes acknowledge the “Catholic connection” to All Saints Day, but they use that as yet another weapon in their arsenal to attack the Catholic Church as being demon-inspired and un-Christian. The Church promotes devil-worship, so they say.

The truth is that the Catholic Church does not teach that children should dress up as ghosts and goblins on the evening before All Saints Day and go door-to-door begging for candy. For that matter, the Church also does not teach that we should tell our kids about a man named Santa Claus who puts presents under a tree at Christmastime. These are both examples of secular and, to some extent, pagan cultural practices that have found their way into our own observance of the holidays. Examples of this extend into almost every facet of our lives. For instance, the throwing of rice at weddings stems from the pagan belief that this promotes fertility.

So what is a faithful Christian (Catholic) to do? Should we reject Halloween as a tool of the devil - a part of our pagan past that should be abandoned?

The problem is, if we were to eliminate all of our cultural traditions that are rooted in paganism, or that have some origin in pre-Christian thought, we would strip our culture of many time-honored institutions and perhaps find ourselves without a culture at all. Since New Testament times, Christianity has not destroyed pagan culture, but rather kept what was good in paganism by adding clarity and shedding more light on these beliefs, (giving them a Christian spin), while eliminating only the erroneous and evil beliefs and practices that accompany pagan insights. In a sense we “baptize” pagan philosophy and practices.

This is a Biblically sound principle. Paul did not uniformly denounce pagan ideals when preaching to the Gentiles. Upon entering Athens he said to the people gathered there: "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD ' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…” (Acts 17:22-23) In this way Paul intertwined the pagan belief in an unknown, unseen god with the God of Christianity and Judaism. While paganism is not the true path to God, Paul recognized that the seed of truth can be found even among false religions.

The lesson in all of this is clear: It is not necessary to destroy or annihilate all the beliefs and practices found in non-Christian cultural traditions. We must give new meaning to their ideas, highlight the strengths, and eliminate the weaknesses and fallacies.

Halloween is in need of a re-cleansing. It has been neglected and almost abandoned, and a modern neo-paganism has shaped it into something un-Christian. If we are to “take back” Halloween (as we are trying to “take back” Christmas or Easter) we Catholics must bring to the culture our appreciation for the Communion of Saints and the honor that we show to the dead – which is what Halloween is supposed to be about. Unfortunately Halloween has fallen victim to the macabre, grotesque, and even Satanic influence of the pop culture. But as members of a counter-movement within that culture we can push back; we can reclaim our holy night.

This year my family has begun to do this in several ways. We carved a cross (rather than a traditional face) into the large pumpkin sitting on our front porch. As we emptied the contents of the pumpkin we explained to our children that God must also cleanse us on the inside to make us into Christians. As we carved the cross, we explained that we are all marked with the sign of the cross, and the light of Christ glows within. Leading up to the holiday, we have been studying different saints, and we will focus especially on each of our patron saints, our namesakes, on the Feast of All Saints. It’s important to include November 1 in the Halloween celebration since that is the true Feast Day on the Church calendar; and also All Souls Day (celebrating all of our deceased) on November 2. Other ideas include dressing as a favorite saint or Biblical figure rather than a commercial character or a phantom, spirit, witch or ghoul. (Although this year our kids prefer superheroes and princesses.)

It is not necessary to abandon Halloween traditions like carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating. Nor should we throw up our hands and let the secular culture take this holiday away from us so that they can transform it into a grotesque mutation of the “hallowed” celebration it ought to be. Rather, we should focus our time and energy on reclaiming the Eve of All Saints and use it to shape the culture in which we live. We can then say, as Paul might: “I see you have set aside a night on which you commemorate the dead. Therefore, what you celebrate in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

You don't have to embrace the extreme...but at least learn to live with it.

Extremism occurs on both ends of the political spectrum. On the Left the most radical faction pushes a secular agenda, embracing multiculturalism and moral relativism. The extreme Right possesses a religious fervor (usually Christian) which shapes a world view that is typically resistant to change, quick to judge, and frequently invokes God and faith in the public forum. Not every conservative or liberal is a radical (most are not), yet the extreme positions on both sides often largely define our political debates. The loudest voices with the most passion and the most press coverage generally dominate the news cycle. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
Like it or not, no matter which political party you join or what political philosophy you adopt, you will always carry with you the extra baggage of the extreme element of your group. When I tell people I am conservative, I know that that word conjures up images of “vast right-wing conspiracies” and Bible-thumping Christian fanatics determined to establish an American theocracy. I have learned to accept this caricature of the Right (regardless of its inaccuracies) as my unwelcome companion in political discussions. But I have also learned to value what the extreme Right offers in support of my beliefs, even if I do not partake in their radicalism. Both the far Right and the far Left operate with a clarity of purpose sometimes difficult to discern among moderates. There is no compromise on their core tenets, and they thrive on simplicity of belief. It is through this simplified view of the world that they offer political insight for the rest of us.
The far Right simplifies the world by seeing everything in “black and white” - good and evil. They categorize and label every aspect of society based on a strict moral code of absolutes. A thing is either “good” and godly and righteous, or it is “evil” and demonic. There is no middle ground. Conversely, on the far left there is nothing but middle ground. Everything is “grey.” The Left is, at its core, morally relative and as such recognizes no single, legitimate moral code. Accordingly, there can be no definitive good and evil, no right and wrong. The far Left’s simplified reality rests on a rejection of absolute moral Truth. Truth is relative.
Of course the flaw in these two approaches is not that they are both entirely wrong, but that they each have it only half right. More moderate thinkers from the left and right know that there is both “black and white” as well as “grey.” There is such a thing as absolute good and evil; and then there are times when moral questions are not so easily answered. Real dialogue happens when each side is willing to recognize the validity of both these points of view. Constructive dialogue always happens in the middle, not from the extremes.
Then what purpose do the extremes serve?
I have learned to accept the far Right as my ally because they offer moral grounding, a jumping off point, an ideological foundation. I begin any serious review of an issue by going back to the center of conservative values, back to the simplicity at the heart of it all. There I know that absolute Truth does exist; that there is good and evil, right and wrong; that there is a God and a purpose to life. I know that the grey-ness of the world is a mixture of the black and white Truths that shape my conservative convictions. Knowing these Truths I can step into the grey middle and better defend a particular position or course of action.
As a Catholic parent I see the importance of the Right’s over-simplified world view reflected in the upbringing of my children. My eldest is six years old. He is just beginning to see the grey-ness in the world of morality. He is beginning to understand that some issues are a complex blend of good and evil which must be carefully sorted out before passing judgment on a course of action or deciding the rectitude of any given moral choice. But to get to this point of complex discernment, he first had to be taught that moral absolutes exist as a foundation to shape his moral compass. He had to be grounded in a more radical “right and wrong” - a simplified moral logic, easily digested by a toddler or a preschooler - from which he can now judge the world. He had to be taught the absolute Truths of morality first, so that now he can navigate the uncertain grey-ness of the physical world.
My three-year-old is not at the same level of moral awareness as my six-year-old. For a few more years she must grapple with the “black-and-white” of a simplified morality so that, when she is ready, she too will reach a level of moral maturity and be able to cope with the grey-ness of the world, having first received a grounding in Truth. In a sense, I am parenting my children from radical Right-wingers into moderate conservatives.
Moderate conservatives do not deny that the world is filled with grey-ness. We meet people every day who are a moral mix of black and white – they are kind and loving souls, and yet they can do evil things. We all are capable of sin; even saints are sinners. No one is morally “white” (that is clean, pure and undefiled); and no one is morally “black” (totally corrupted and un-redeemable). As moral agents our actions are often a mixture of good and evil, in our intentions and in their outcome. If I am to send my children out into this world of grey how will they be able to discern good and evil, how are they to know right from wrong? I must first teach them that “black” and “white” exist and that the grey-ness they see is merely a blending of the two. Only then will they make moral sense of the grey-ness because they will know the source from which it is all derived.
On the other hand, if a child begins from a far-left perspective, that there is no right and wrong, that good and evil are relative, that all is grey and Truth is of our own making, then that child is left with only the shades of grey and no hope of sorting out the black-ness and white-ness of morality. They approach life with their own shade of grey, a unique shade, with no concept of the black and white from which it came. Good and Evil are swallowed up in a confused mix. Such a grounding in moral confusion cannot form a basis for right moral judgment.
So the problem of the political extremes is like that of a child learning moral Truth. The extreme Right sees the “black and white” and so has built a foundation for correct moral judgment (however immature this may be). The extreme Left is like an undisciplined child who has never been shown goodness nor scolded for evil. If the debate between these extremes sometimes seems like a shouting match between two three-year-olds, then I think that is an apt description. The radicals of each party are the embarrassing tantrum-throwers in the political families. If we engage ourselves in an active political life, we are bound to be thrown in at some point with one or the other of these groups (fairly or not). We will find ourselves in the same family with one or the other of the political preschoolers. We will look to our right or to our left and see that our allies in a particular cause are one or the other of the political extremes.
I categorize myself as a conservative. I am not “radical” – but I do appreciate the source from which the radical Right derives its passion. I do not mind being grouped with the Right-wingers any more than I mind being the parent of an unruly three-year-old. It is occasionally embarrassing, and I sometimes scold them publically, but they are part of the family, and I see the possibility of molding them into well-developed moral agents. They at least have in place some rudimentary insights into Truth and our divine origins…although I have serious disagreements with some of them theologically and on the correct application of these principles within society.
The far Right-wing does not always understand the reality of the moral grey (or even accept that it exists), but they do protect with zeal the Truth that I share in common with them. I am not a radical right-winger. But I am a conservative who remains in the fold, not in spite of the extreme faction on the right, but precisely because of those extremists. Although they are often self-destructive, closed-minded, and tactless, they understand certain Truths that the morally bankrupt extreme Left does not and cannot because of its own ideological flaws.
If I must be associated with the radical faction of a particular philosophy, then let it be those who see the world as having meaning and purpose and a foundation of Truth. If my political choices carry with them, at least in part, the added weight of the extreme conservative fringe then I can live with that, because I know that the extreme Left offers nothing in its place.

I would like to stress that there are some extreme elements within politics which do not deserve a place at the table. On both sides there are factions that use reprehensible tactics, or vile language, or make unfair accusations and peddle falsehoods. These groups are not the subject of this post.
I would never embrace or even tolerate a group that would blow up an abortion clinic, for instance. Nor would I suggest that liberals ought to embrace or make excuses for groups that set fire to corporate buildings because of their dislike of capitalism.
Instead I would use as an example a pro-life protestor holding a sign showing the dismembered body of an aborted fetus and shouting at women that they are going to hell for getting an abortion. This kind of action, while extreme (and I do reject it) is far less morally reprehensible than any terrorist action or destruction of property. I would never advocate breaking the law or harming someone physically just to make a political point.
Holding a picture of a dismembered fetus is well within a person’s free speech rights as is shouting that someone is going to hell… But it is tactless and infantile. My point would be that at least such a person has the correct moral foundation – abortion is evil; it is a sin; and certainly hell is a very real possibility for someone who traffics in this sin. But only God can make such a determination about one’s soul. And there are better ways to win over converts to your way of thinking than waving around pictures of bloody corpses.
This kind of political extremism is common and often makes the news. Nobody is doing anything illegal or engaging in terrorist plots…they just have misdirected passions and don’t know how to channel them effectively. As I said above: the extremists like this on the Right are at least in the right ball park. Those on the Left are not even close.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Patristics: Polycarp of Smyrna, Part IV

In our last installment concerning The Martyrdom of Polycarp we uncovered the ancient Christian custom of preserving the bodies or bones of saints as “relics” – objects intended for veneration by future generations. The ancient Christians honored Christ by paying honor and respect to the mortal remains of deceased saints. They revered saints because in doing so they gave glory to Christ from whom the saints receive grace and holiness. By studying and imitating their lives Christians sought to share in the holiness of saints, looking to them as examples of faithfulness and as imitators of Christ.
In the case of martyrs (those who died violently as witnesses to the faith) their imitation of Jesus comes through more directly as they shared in His suffering through their own deaths. In the martyrdom account of Polycarp this parallel between a martyr’s death and Christ’s death on the cross takes on a Eucharistic tone:

“…And as the flame blazed forth in great fury…the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked…”
This description of “flesh” appearing like “bread” is undeniably Eucharistic. In the Eucharist (the communion meal of bread and wine shared by Christians) the Lord’s body is made present under the appearance of bread. We discussed this Real Presence of Christ when studying the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, also a student of John the Apostle and a friend and fellow bishop of Polycarp. Ignatius tells us that the Eucharist is a source of unity within the Catholic Church – we are united to one another by participating in the one sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist, and we unite ourselves to Christ by offering our own suffering as a participation in His suffering made present in the Eucharist. Like Polycarp, Ignatius also compared his own death to the Eucharist in this way: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
It is fitting then to honor saints as imitators of Christ, especially those who die a martyr’s death, who link their own suffering to that of the Lord.
Carrying this analogy further, the Martyrdom even suggests that the suffering of these holy and faithful people offers some relief of punishment for sins:
“…And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them.”
This is called “redemptive suffering” – which is the Catholic teaching that our suffering here on earth can go toward the relief of any punishment for the sins of the one suffering, or even for the sins of others. Paul suggests this idea with regard to his own afflictions: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Paul says that his suffering fills up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body.” Not that Jesus’ suffering was ineffective, but that His suffering has a dimension that transcends time and draws us into a relationship with Him, across the centuries, by linking our suffering to His own. We as believers are His Mystical Body. How fitting it is that His Body, the church, should share in the sufferings that He underwent in His own human body while He lived among us. How else can we explain what Paul says about Jesus’ afflictions “lacking” in any sense of that word? If we are to “fill up” what is lacking in His suffering, it can only mean that our own suffering has a redemptive quality through and in Christ’s sufferings.
So when we read in the Martyrdom that Polycarp and his companions were “redeeming themselves from eternal punishment,” we must read this in light of Paul’s own testimony in Scripture. Our suffering has spiritual benefits, not in spite of Christ’s suffering, but through and in His suffering. My suffering can “fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
A further comparison between Polycarp’s death and the sacrificial death of Jesus is to be seen in the references made to Polycarp as a “ram,” as an unblemished offering to God in the mode of Jewish sacrificial offerings of old:
“…placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God…”
So too Polycarp offers a prayer on his own behalf: “… may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled.”
The sacrifice of one’s life in the name of Jesus is the surest way to fulfill what the Lord said when He insisted that we must lose our lives to gain eternal life, and we must take up our cross and follow Him. (Mark 8:34-35) Certainly we are not all called to be martyrs in this way, but those who have met this fate in the course of Christian history, stand out as exemplary models of Christian faithfulness and rightly deserve our respect and honor. Their bones, now shattered fragments of a life once lived in harmony with God’s will, are to us, (as the Martyrdom of Polycarp states): “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold.”
To this day, Catholic churches around the world house the relics of saints “ a fitting place whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate...both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”

The Martyrdom of Polycarp bears witness to the ancient Christian celebration of saintly lives, and to the collection of relics and the spiritual benefits of suffering. Written sometime shortly after his death in 155 AD, The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one of the oldest authentic examples of Christian Acts of the Martyrs, which tell similar tales of heroic faith and virtue under threat of death and persecution. Polycarp’s direct link to Apostolic times, having lived in the First Century and studied under one or more of the Apostles, gives to this text an added weight. We see here a Church shaped directly by Apostolic faith as transmitted by a hand-picked successor to the Apostles. The information we glean from this source adds yet another layer of understanding to our knowledge of authentic Christianity from the earliest centuries. If we wish to believe as the first Christian believed, we must accept with due reverence what was taught by a man such as Polycarp of Smyrna.