Pentecost 23 – The Hallowed Commandments – October 31, 2021

The Hallowed Commandments

Jack-o-LanternsHappy Halloween!  Today is Hallows’ Eve — Halloween — although our readings and prayers are the ones appointed for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  We’re not celebrating Halloween at Emmanuel, although it’s entirely possible that the rector might be wearing a special Halloween skirt with scary cats and bat lace under her alb, stole, and chasuble.  That’s why we wear vestments — to identify our roles in the service so that we can focus on our worship and not our individual clothing choices.  Pumpkins are fitting and appropriate decorations for any altar in October, when the colors and cooler temperatures tell us that Fall is here, and remind us that Advent is coming.  But would it be so very wrong if we did think of Halloween as a religious holiday — as a celebration that points us to important insights for our faith?

Halloween has been a controversial holiday over time, as many Christians worry that it is a pagan holiday, and that to celebrate it would be somehow sacrilegious.  And Halloween did originate from the pagan holiday honoring the dead,  just as many of our religious holidays have their origins in seasonal rhythms.  Religious observances become most meaningful to people when they make sense in their own place and circumstances, so most of our religious holidays found relevance in our culture by glomming onto a seasonal rhythm that has become an integral part of the culture.  Think of the word holiday — and our ready use of the word pagan in combination with it.  Our word in English for a day that we honor for its cultural significance comes directly and plainly from the words holy day.

November 1 is All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows Eve is the name for the day that precedes it.  The name is derived from the Old English word hallowed, meaning holy or sanctified.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer — our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name. When we pray these words, we are not saying that the God of Israel is pagan.  When we say hallowed be God’s name, we are saying that God’s name is holy, and not pagan.  The word pagan simply indicates polytheistic faiths that are not descended from the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel.  In other words, pagan means polytheistic faiths other than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which all proclaim faith in the one God of Israel.

All Saints’ Eve

The traditional name for today — All Hallows’ Eve — is now usually contracted to the more familiar word Hallowe’en, and marks a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thin, allowing the souls of the dead to come back to earth and walk among the living.  With that translation, another word for Halloween would be All Saints’ Eve.  So how can our popular holiday celebration of Halloween — with all our spooky skeletons, spiderwebs, ghosts, and witches — remind us, in our context, of our holy day of All Saints’ Day in our Christian calendar?

Great CommandmentsScripture tells us clearly and specifically in our readings appointed for today — the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, falling on Halloween — that dressing up and decorating our doorways are holy — that is hallowed — acts.  Our first reading today from the Book of Deuteronomy contains the Great Shema, the central tenet of the Jewish faith, and therefore also of our Christian heritage:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

And that’s exactly what Jesus tells the scribe in Mark’s gospel today.  The scribe overhears the Saducees arguing with each other and asking Jesus to weigh in on their dispute and notices that Jesus gives the Sadducees some excellent answers and insights.  He decides to consult Jesus with a question of his own.  Which commandment is the first of all, the scribe asks.  Jesus, the good Jew, answers with the Great Shema, right from our Deuteronomy reading this morning.  Jesus says, The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  And then Jesus continues, “The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

            It’s really important to mention that Jesus didn’t make the second commandment up on the spot.  Love of neighbor is commanded in Leviticus and is woven through all of the Hebrew Bible that Christians know as the Old Testament.  Jesus is a good Jew and scholar of scripture.  Remember the scribe is asking Jesus this question because he overhears Jesus settling a learned argument among the Sadducees, and the scribe addresses Jesus as Teacher in this very passage.  Jesus is answering the scribe’s question with the greatest commandment and expanding his response to include the second great commandment.

Decorating our Doorways and Dressing Up

So — let’s consider my earlier claim that today’s readings directly support decorating our doorways and dressing up — the very main events of a typical Halloween observance — to remind us of the central tenets of our faith.  Let’s go back to Chapter 6 of Deuteronomy, the words right after the Great Shema — Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  This is what comes next:


Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Every day at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Orthodox Jewish men worship wearing tefillin on their foreheads and forearms in observance of this very clear instruction.  The tefillin — that’s the plural form of the word in Hebrew — the tefillin themselves are small leather boxes about three inches square that contain miniature scrolls on parchment — stretched animal skin — bearing God’s instruction to bind the greatest commandment to your forehead and your arm as a reminder of God’s saving grace.  Many Christians also, particularly those in religious orders and clergy, wear specific clothing to remind us of our promises to God as this passage from Deuteronomy instructs.

tefillinAnd the second part of today’s passage from Deuteronomy — and write these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates — instructs God’s people to decorate their doors to remind them of important promises of their faith.  Jews all over the world, and particularly in Israel, place mezuzot — that’s plural, singular is mezuzah — on the doorposts of their houses.  Mezuzot are cases containing a tightly rolled piece of parchment with the words from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 that we read this morning:  Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

I want to return to the discussion of Halloween as a holy-day, rather than a pagan celebration.  If scripture clearly tells us to wear reminders of our faith as clothing and to decorate our doors with signs to others of our faith, why can’t Halloween costumes and traditions be the cultural emblems and ways we remind ourselves of the second Great Commandment — love of neighbor?  Especially when we’re already wearing masks in love and care for our neighbor to keep each other safe from the virus?  There are kind people who provide children who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise with Halloween costumes.  Yes, of course, there are some werewolves and vampires, which gives those kids a chance to stretch their imaginations and to grow.  And there are also children who get the chance to dream of a future that they may come to live — as nurses, doctors, firefighters, or librarians.  This is outreach to the least of these.

And why couldn’t we live out our love of neighbor — wearing our masks for safety and to keep us in mind of the Greatest Commandments — by decorating our doors with spiderwebs, skeletons and pumpkins and putting out some really good candy — baby Ruths and Heath bars are my favorite, by the way — to welcome trick or treaters on this holy-day of All Hallows’ Eve?  Amen


Swing into Spring with the Larry Brown Swinglane Orchestra - Pentecost Sunday - May 19th, 2024 - 7:30 - 10:00 pm - Tickets $25