Thursday November 3, 2022
Another Halloween has come and gone. We’ve sent our children out into the darkness of night dressed as skeletons or mummies, ghouls and ghosties, and other things that go bump in the night.
Now the costumes have been put away for another year.
And I wonder what’s special about Halloween that we’re dressing up our kids for.
There was a time, of course, when people actually believed that the souls of the dead rose up from their graves and roamed the streets. The whole premise of Dickens’ Christmas Carol relies on Scrooge believing that dead still have a presence among us.
I don’t know anyone who seriously believes such things anymore.
So why do we keep doing it?
I wonder if fetes like Halloween are our way of reducing the great mysteries of life to levels we can handle. We make the sacred secular; we banish the terrors of violence by playing cops and robbers; we turn sex into jokes.
During the years of bubonic plague, no one would have wandered the streets at night dressed as a skeleton. Death was omnipresent. You didn’t joke about it.
The fact that we can treat death as a children’s game suggests to me that we have largely banished death from our lives.
Not completely, of course. Death still breaks into, and occasionally shatters, our lives. But not daily. So we can afford to treat it as a make-believe frolic.
Secularizing the sacred
We have done the same with other mysteries. Communion or Mass, for example. For generations, churches taught that the thin little wafer of gluten somehow transubstantiated itself into the physical body of Jesus.
“Hoc est corpus,” intoned the priest, holding high the bread.
Those words became the “hocus pocus” beloved of magicians.
The same for “abracadabra” which, apparently, derives from three Aramaic words: ab meaning Father, benmeaning Son, and ruach meaning Holy Spirit – in other words, the Holy Trinity.
The names of God and Jesus were once verboten in casual speech. Devout Jews will still not utter, or write, the name of God, seeing it as representations of the Holy One.
The sacred names were used only in fear and trembling. Now – OMG – they’re commonplace. Even in public broadcasts.
Thus we domesticate the wildness of mystery. We don’t have to understand it; we don’t have to struggle with it. We divest ourselves of its power over us.
I’m reminded of a story of some boys who found a dead bird. They wanted to give it a proper funeral. But no one knew the incantations to recite.
Finally one boy took the initiative. “I’m Catholic,” he declared. “I know what the priest says.”
Holding the dead bird high above a hole in the ground, he intoned, “Under the B…”
Like Halloween, the great mystery of resurrection at Easter has been scaled down into chocolate and bunnies. The miracle of incarnation at Christmas gets turned into tinsel and toys under an plastic tree.
Perhaps in their original intent, these fetes and festivals were too much for us to deal with. So we took our cue from Disney – we turned them into children’s play.
Even Dracula becomes just another funny face.
Copyright © 2022 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Th first two responses to last week’s column, about unexpected insights from Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence, took diametrically opposing viewpoints.
Cliff Boldt wrote, “Jim, it’s too late for me. I have had ‘my future’, and it was a great and crazy ride. But I sent it to my kids -- they may get more value out of this stuff.”
And Jim McKean: wrote, “Jim it's never too late! Learning is always important even if the learning is not easily conveyed. Learning is for oneself. That learning can then to be conveyed, if appropriate or possible, to others when the time is right. The time will always come.”
Clare Neufeldt: “What a revelation! I did not understand that this brain malfunction (referring to how you described Joan’s challenge) was NOT ‘our’ fault -- i.e., not a matter of deciding (willing) ourselves into a higher level or simply learning how to overcome it.
“I have often felt similarly when facing certain challenges such as finding words, (in games, or other challenges), or calling forth facts and figures… I also know, and have known, highly intelligent folks who were terrified of tests, exams, writing essays, etc. (including our grandchildren_.
“Generally speaking, they have often presented as though they suffered from a low sense of self-esteem in that environment.”
Isabel Gibson picked up on the same theme as Cliff: “Lots of people don't perform well on exams. I guess we didn't evolve in an environment where success on exams was a survival factor.
“I understand that many high-schoolers didn't write any kind of exam during the pandemic. The current crop of 11th- and 12th-graders faced exams determining their admission to university without any significant practice since 9th grade. Oops.
My favourite exam-methodology story came from a friend who took a course where the first half of the exam required students to set five questions on the subject. The second half required them to answer those questions.
“It's an interesting challenge for our porpoise brains - maybe in cooperation with our monkey minds.”
And speaking of “monkey minds”… Tom Watson wrote, “I honestly don't know what kind of mind I have. Monkey mind? Higher porpoise mind? Or maybe it varies day to day.”
I didn’t have exactly the same verses for Psalm 145 as the lectionary prescribes, but the message of this paraphrase seems appropriate for the world this week.
13 Governments come, and governments go;
Nations come, and nations go.
Only God goes on forever.
Only God is completely dependable;
only God is never corrupted by power.
14 God strengthens those crushed by life,
and lifts the burdens of those bent over by cares.
15 God does not favor the fortunate;
the seasons roll around for the poor as for the rich.
16 With open-handed generosity, God causes the earth to bring forth food for all.
17 It is only humans who hoard, creating shortages for others.
God holds nothing back;
God plays fair with everyone.
18 God never puts the phone on hold;
God never hides behinds secretaries or schedules.
God is always available.
19 God never turns anyone away --
20 except those who reject God, who deny God's relevance.
When their time comes, they will vanish into the silence;
their words will be heard no more.
21 But the words of those who know God will echo down the generations;
by their stories, many not yet born will come to know God.
Apparently the printed version of my paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary is now out of print. But you can still order an e-book version of Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)