Hallowe’en comes from the contraction of All Hallows Eve. To hallow is to make holy, and October 31 was (and is) the eve before All Hallows Day, or the All the Holy Ones Day, All Saints, honoring Christian saints. The celebration is followed by Allhallowstide, in which all of the Christian dead are remembered. This coming week churches all over world will remember their dead, their loved ones, calling out their names on All Souls Day and, in this ceremony of love, hallowing them. The evening before, Halloween, sees the last of the unfriendly spirits roaming the night, for they are vanquished by the light of Christ in the morning, and fear is vanquished by joy.
Sometimes fear is good. It is an intuitive instinct that signals danger. Gavin de Becker, an expert who evaluates potential threats to famous people, titled his invaluable book on safety, The Gift of Fear. And in this sense, fear is a gift, a survival signal, a warning that lights the dark.
Children are afraid of the dark. And we should be too. Novelist Jake Halpern writes in the Wall Street Journal about fear of the dark:
“Since the dawn of man, night has been a time when we were in danger, when we were vulnerable – to lions, club-toting men and giant chasms into which we could fall… it was evolutionarily advantageous for us to be afraid of the dark. Those of us who feared the night and cowered from its dangers, survived. Those who went for strolls in the dark ended up as snacks for lions.”
Today with electric light we laugh such fears away. Yet we are ambivalent about fear itself, sometimes denying it, sometimes welcoming it. We flirt with it, tease it, to see what happens when it draws near, for we have banished most survival fears from long ago such as hunger, shelter, wild animals. We are curious, enticed by darkness.
A friend of mine once claimed that she liked the feeling of fear, of being on the edge of danger, secondhand fear experienced in a book or movie. There are many words for this feeling of excitement. We shudder and shiver, chilled to the bone. A frisson gives us goosebumps. A ghost walks over our grave. We are on the edge of our seats, waiting to be safe again. What is the lure? Why flirt with the dark, with falling into the abyss? Are we rehearsing our future? Our death?
Halloween has in many ways become a rehearsal as well, as children (and adults) don costumes and pretend to be someone or something else and venture into the dark. For some the choice is innocent role playing, choosing to be princes and princesses, musicians or athletes. Still, others choose to be witches and goblins. Some choose the light and some the dark. Some choose life and some choose death: skeletons, ghosts, and grim reapers, desiring to scare.
Our nation too seems on the edge of darkness, in the dusk of its day, playing dangerous games with life and death, slaughtering generations of unborn innocents. We survivors look away, pass on the other side of the road, just as we do in the world theater of wars and rumors of wars, withdrawing and allowing the dark to swallow the light, whether in Moscow or Tehran or the borderlands of the West.
Light and darkness, life and death. The line between them is not often clear, sometimes smudged into dusk and dawn. And so it is in our hearts, where good sheds light and evil darkens.
And so I’m grateful that the dark of All Hallows’ Eve is banished by the light of All Hallows’ Day and the light of Sunday resurrection. This morning I gazed upon six thick white candles on the stone altar of St. Joseph’s Chapel near U.C. Berkeley. The candles flamed brightly, the fiery wicks drinking in the air above, flickering their tips toward heaven. A roughly carved crucifix rose above the tabernacle, beyond the suspended Sanctus light. We stood and turned toward the entry as five student acolytes processed in, carrying torches and crucifix, followed by the white-robed clergy. The organ bellowed through the vaulted domed space and echoed over the russet-tiled floor as we joined in songs of praise to God for his saints.
Halloween would not exist if it were not for All Saints, the holy-day that gives the costumed evening its name. After the night of darkness, a weak sun broke through this morning and bathed our world in light. We sang as one people, giving thanks for those men and women who chose the light and turned away from the dark. Martyred for their choice, and today still being martyred, we honor them. History has known a world without Christ, a world of impenetrable darkness, one rightly feared. We peer through the dusk of our days, keeping our candles lit, sharing the love of God, the light of Christ, looking to the morning of resurrection.