A Winter’s Tale

November 1, 2010 Length: 20:47

Fr. Gregory's sermon for October 31 is on neo-paganism and how it is reflected in Halloween.





Today we commemorate St Aristobolus, one of the 70 Apostles who was commissioned by Christ to preach the gospel, (Luke 10:1). St Aristobolus was the brother of St Barnabas and tradition holds that he preached in Britain being consecrated in this task as the first Bishop of the Britons. A district in mid-Wales called Arwystli is reputedly named after him, so this may give an indication of places associated with his ministry. Nothing more is known of him. However we do know something of the native religion which St Aristobolus would have encountered in his journeys and work as an evangelist. It is a religion that has experienced something of a mini revival in our own times. It is a religion whose adherents worship, invoke, placate and celebrate nature and associated spirits. Today it is called by scholars “neopaganism,” an umbrella term under which shelters a number of diverse and reconstructed Celtic, Gaelic and Wiccan rites. Fairly constant across them all are two feasts by which the year is divided according to the seasons; the first, Beltane at the beginning of May, a spring festival and the second which concerns us today, Samhain at the beginning of November.

Something very similar to these festivals would have been known by St Aristobolus and indeed remnants and echoes of these religious practices endured for centuries, perhaps unbroken right up unto the present day. The 2001 census in the United Kingdom suggests that by self declaration there are approximately 42,000 neo-pagans in the country today, somewhat less than a statistical survey which extrapolated and number closer to quarter of a million. The reality is properly somewhere between the two, perhaps 100,000, about one third of the number of Orthodox. St Aristobolus would have envied that ratio as he was almost completely outnumbered in his own day by practising pagans. Nonetheless he and countless other Christian missionaries after him managed to overturn paganism and establish the Christian faith and Church in the hearts and the minds of the people. Today the so-called “old religion” is experiencing its revival, not necessarily and significantly in the numbers of true believers but in the impact of pagan culture in the national consciousness and popular practices of the homes, streets and media of this post-Christian society; which brings me of course the Hallowe’en, that modern rebranding of the Samhain eve of winter rites.

In its original form Samhain marked the transition from autumn to winter at the end of harvest and it was thought at this time that the veil between the living of the dead was thinned allowing possibly evil spirits to cross over and trouble the living. Dressing up in the garb of such evil spirits was just one means of avoiding their influence for being rather stupid they would be confused by appearances. Turnips or samnhnag would be hollowed out with carved faces to make lanterns and these were also used to ward off harmful spirits. The people would also light bonfires, two of that usually between which humans and livestock would walk in a cleansing ritual. Not all of these practices have been retained of course but many or most of them have simply been redressed in popular form and now constitute that rather annoying Hallowe’en pastime of harassing neighbours for money. In truth, the trick is in the cultural popularity of pagan rites; the treat in the gospel of Christ’s victory over death by which evil has been overthrown, hell despoiled and new life brought to the world.

Historically the policy of the Church in both East and West has been to set up feasts and festivals which liturgically and in the culture pick up the themes and questions raised by pagan rites and redirect them to Christ. Invariably these Christian festivals would deliberately be chosen to coincide with the pagan ones unless there was good reason to keep them in their original place. Christians in the East, however, were never faced with the precise cultural challenge of paganism in its eve of winter customs, typical of darker, colder northern Europe. So Emperor Leo VI, “the Wise” help the institute the feast of All Saints which came to be celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost emphasising the connection between practical holiness and the gift of the Holy Spirit; this so done because there was no pressing local need to combat paganism which might have constrained him to suggest a different date.

In the West, Rome was fairly slow to respond but Pope Boniface ordered a celebration on the feast of the dedication of the Pantheon at Rome to our Lady and the Martyrs on 13 May 609. Interestingly this was on a pre-Christian pagan feast very similar to Samhain but not linked to winter called the feast of the Lemures, a time when malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were propitiated. Pope Gregory III over 100 years later moved the feast to 1 November with its more relevant Samhain connection for central and northern Europe and there it has remained ever since. The word Hallowe’en is a shortened form of the eve (the night before) All Hallows; “hallows” being the old English name for the saints, “the holy ones”.... as in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy Name” or “Holy be Thy Name.” Later in the West, the feast of All Souls was instituted the day after on November 1st to commemorate the dead whose salvation in Christ was secure but whose journey to the Kingdom was not yet complete. There is no such feast in Orthodoxy since we do not have a comparable doctrine of Purgatory to which this feast of All Souls refers.

And so to the present-day with its resurgence of neo-pagan Hallowe’en customs and the baleful ignorance of a post-Christian population, many of whom simply do not see what all the fuss is about when Christians get prickly about little boys and girls dressing up in ghoulish costumes to roam the streets trick-or-treating and when the media starts churning out the usual crop of Hallowe’en horrors to keep the adults happy. Some Christians do go overboard on this. It’s almost as if they think that anyone who has been to a Hallowe’en party should repent and be exorcised. This is nonsense; the devil is rarely so blatant in his strategy. Far more dangerous is the insidious creep into popular culture of pagan themes and ideas which replace Christ’s victory over death with a very old fear of death and evil, prettified by silly customs to make it acceptable to the modern mind. Perhaps this even reflects the modern outlook which, in its supposed rationality, has no answers to the deeper questions of life and death now that it has banished the gospel from the public domain.

Given time I believe that this cultural erosion of Christian themes and of a Christian consciousness will make it even more difficult to re-evangelise this country… not impossible, just much more difficult. In the days of St Aristobolus, preaching the gospel from the base of a vanishingly small Christian minority was hugely difficult, but our forefathers had the great advantage of proclaiming a new and fresh message concerning life and death to a population who did not think, at least in respect of Christianity, that it knew it all already. This is the difficulty that we face today; people think they know what we are all about whereas in fact they don’t, and more especially because they think that Christianity is what either the Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions present it to be.

What then ought to be the response of the Orthodox to this deteriorating situation in the West? First we have to acknowledge a problem that we lack a celebration of All Saints (that is “All Hallows”) on 1st November. I think we ought to be petitioning our bishops to establish one. A solution may be found in moving the celebration of local saints from the Sundays after the feast of All Saints to November 1st. At least then we could have a liturgical celebration which addressed the issues and practices of our indigenous culture which would greatly assist our mission. Of course this presupposes that the Orthodox churches are actually interested in local mission! Don’t get me going on that one! Anyway, this is only a beginning, a first step. We need also to address the more fundamental issue of the de-Christianisation of our culture.

That is always addressed on two fronts; the first is familiar and self-evident… the extension, development and strengthening of Orthodox communities in our society, in short the planting of new churches in a “resource-full” systematic and spiritual way right across our land and the active seeking out of leaders who will be Christian role models for this and the next generation. The second front is often neglected but no less important. It is about the recovery of an Orthodox Christian culture. It is the culture in its de-Christianised disorientation that so often blocks the best attempts of even vigorous, spiritually healthy Church communities in their work. We need to address the cultural issues directly and not just indirectly through the growth of our parishes. This is exceedingly difficult but vital. There are a number of strategies that we could employ.

The first is to make sure that as many as possible of our celebrations liturgical and non-liturgical are held in public and are accompanied by some sort of community celebration which does not exclude the non-Orthodox. So for example, in this part of the country in the North, particularly as there is a recent historical memory of the popular “Whit-walks,” the old name for Church street processions with bands, celebrations and parties to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. The Orthodox should reclaim that specifically northern English tradition which many heterodox confessions have abandoned for no apparent reason. The second concerns what the ad-men call “brand awareness.” People simply just don’t know about Orthodoxy and even if they do they think it to be largely irrelevant as a foreign implant in Western soil. Sometimes for sure this really is racism in disguise, yet for all that there is a majority who are not racist who simply conclude that the Orthodox Church is not for them; that they simply wouldn’t be welcome. Sometimes this is true, sadly, but even when it’s not it doesn’t change the perception, so we have to work against that perception actively, proactively, consistently and in an attractive and welcoming way. Thirdly, we have to do something about the ideological drive of secularism, the idea that religion should not be visible in the public domain. We have to face the fact that this is not something that Christians can deal with on their own. We must make common cause with believers of many different faiths, (and it would be a much more powerful witness anyway if we did), in rolling back the pernicious and undemocratic muzzling of the religious voice in the contemporary West. Religious freedom is not just about the right of individuals to express religious beliefs and of communities to worship in freedom although it most certainly includes that. It is much more. It is the right of faith communities to make contribution to the public good, to have a voice representing those communities in those political decisions that concern the moral and spiritual health of our societies. We are not here just to plug fiscal gaps in the draining reserves of State social action. We are here because God matters in every aspect of our lives, public and private, Church and State. This is our bottom line.

In conclusion I think that this is a wake-up call to all Orthodox to become much more aware of the ambient culture, its assumptions, its beliefs, its practices, its goals… In order that we might both engage with it and transform it. That is what all the Christian missionaries did in these Isles in times past starting with St Aristobolus. Let us rise to the challenge and be confident in our faith. Let there be no hiding in the corners but rather let our good works so shine before men that they may glorify our Father who is in heaven.

Oh and by the way… do let us try and find something else better for our kids to do tonight!