With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Inculturation Through The Ages VII: Some Short Thoughts On All Saints And Halloween

When one looks at the history of the Feast of All Saints, one finds a rather confused image of how it began and how it developed. That is because there are many layers to the celebration, and what is true at one place in a given time might not be true at a different place in that exact same time.

It is difficult to pinpoint its origin. Evidence from the homilies of St John Chrysostom suggests that a celebration of the feast developed in the Antiochian tradition sometime before his reign, therefore, sometime in the fourth century. The Eastern celebration of All Saints follows this Antiochian tradition, and commemorates the feast on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

How then did the Western martyrology place this feast on November 1st? The answer to this question requires us to look to the Western origins of this feast.

In 609, the Pantheon was given to Pope Boniface IV, and was turned into the Church of Mary and the Martyrs. The Pantheon was one of the great architectural achievements of Rome, and it was created (as the name suggests) as a place to worship all the Roman gods. The Pope consecrated the Pantheon on May 13, and turned May 13 to be an annual feast of all the martyr. In Edessa, we find May 13 was already a feast day celebrating the brave deeds of the martyrs, so perhaps Boniface took this in account (it would be a great coincidence if he did not) when he transformed the Pantheon from being a temple to all the gods to a church of all the martyrs.

In this transformation, we can see the Pope is engaging in an ingenious attempt of inculturation. The Pantheon was a popular pilgrimage site, and an important pagan temple. Pagans felt the need to honor all the gods, in part because they wanted whatever benefits the gods could give them, but also because there is an inherent inclination in humanity to honor those who we perceive to be great. We think they are worthy of our respect, and we should manifest that respect in some manner. To the pagan mind, who can be greater than the gods? Who can deserve our respect more than the gods? This inclination is itself good, but needs to meet its proper end: God. But this does not mean, and in fact should not mean, that if someone is not God, they do not deserve our honor and respect – far from it! Thus, not only should our worship and adoration go to God, but it is natural to also honor those who have done great deeds, like the martyrs who suffered so that the Church could thrive. In consecrating the Pantheon to Mary and all the martyrs, Pope Boniface took what was good in the old Roman worship and transformed it, showing how cultural traditions can be used for the glory of God. This is exactly what inculturation is about, and this shows us how inculturation has been an ideal since the earliest of times.

Now, after the time of the persecutions, subsequent saints were seen as one of the martyrs, not because they suffered and were killed for Christ, but because their life was lived out in such a way as they became an example or witness (martyr) for Christ in the way holiness can be achieved through our interaction with grace. All saints therefore are martyrs if one looks to the meaning of the word martyr (explaining why the official record of saints and their feasts is a martyrology).

Now, the movement in the West from May 13 to November 1 did not happen all at once. There seems to be many elements at play here, and not all of them demonstrate inculturation in the way the Western origin for the feast indicates. For example, it seems that in Rome, the feast was moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory III when he dedicated a part of the Basilica of St Peter to all the Saints. Slowly through Western Christendom this date would be used, and it was not until Pope Gregory VII (1073 – 85) that May 13 was suppressed and November 1 became used universally in the West.

Many believe that the change of date from May 13 to November 1 was done for the sake of the Irish. Of course, this would seem odd: why change a universal feast for one small corner of Christendom? Nonetheless, this does not mean that within Ireland Christians did not take advantage of the cultural situation to reinforce the meaning of All Saints. Therefore, even if it was not changed universally to November 1 as a means of inculturation, this does not mean inculturation was not involved in how it was adapted in Ireland.

What kind of inculturation are we talking about? In the Celtic tradition (in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), around we find an end of summer festival, Samhain, being celebrated for several days, starting on October 31. Some nineteenth century speculation on the festival believed it was also a time when the Celtic year changed, but there is debate upon that point by modern scholars. What is not debatable, however, is that in the Celtic tradition, this was an unusual time of year, a time when the Gods and the dead dwelt closer to the world we lived in. It was a time when the dead could be contacted and seen moving around us. It was also a dangerous time, as the darkness is setting in, bringing evil in its wake. Bonfires were lit as a kind of protection from evil. It was also a time of the harvest, and harvest celebrations. In their mirth, families not only took joy in their bounty, but also took of the season to reflect upon the dead, and honor them.

It is not hard to see why this tradition could fit well with the Christian celebration of All Saints. The Celts rightfully had a sense of the awe and mystery which could easily be transferred from the gods to Christ and his saints. Moreover, with All Saints, there developed a secondary tradition, inspired by the Benedictines and Carthusians, that is, of All Souls, a memorial service for the dead. In the development of Christian tradition on the place and experience of the dead, All Souls took upon itself as a time of help and aid for the dead, a time to pray for them, a time to help bring them closer to beatification. This easily fit with the themes surrounding Samhain, and helped ferment with the Celts the notion that the new Christian religious tradition was an adaptation of their local customs, and allowed for a continuation of themes and ways of celebrating the time to be transferred from the old pagan rites to the new Christian tradition.

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, the Eve of All Saints, as it is commonly understood in the English tradition, is inspired by this inculturation of Celtic traditions by the Christian feast. Yes, we can find pagan remnants in the Christian feast, but this shows what was good and holy in the pagan tradition can and does receive its home in the Christian tradition. Sometimes those remnants, as we see with the Celts, were added to the feast either by local custom or by missionary work, sometimes these remnants can be found at the heart of the feast. Medieval Europe was ripe with inculturation. Because it is often the culture we find ourselves living in and associated with, we often do not realize it. Looking back, and seeing how the Christian sympathies blended with the previous pagan traditions, it should give us pause and wonder – how much inculturation should be done from above? That is, how much of it should be invented by someone who thinks they know how the adaptation should be done, and then “forced” upon the people whose culture we are trying to adapt because we think “this is how it works,” and how much of it should be done from within and lived out? True inculturation needs to be organic, like we have seen in history, where the Christian faith meets the inclinations of the nations of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons why modern attempts of inculturation make many cringe lies not with the idea of inculturation, but by the inorganic way it has been tried of late. Many such attempts look forced transformations, perhaps with a beautiful exterior, but in their core, they are shallow without substance.

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