So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)
Halloween is past, Christmas is coming, and not only are the geese getting fat but the doubters and mockers are getting ready for another round of “demystifying” the Incarnation by pointing out (or making up) connections to pagan holidays and practices . . . and then we’ll go through it all again at Easter time. Here in the time in between, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on the holiday (i.e., Holy Day) just past, and look forward to those that are to come.
Good Cop, Bad Cop
First, a little background. Many, many years ago, in the days of my neo-pagan youth, I recall reading that the Christians, as they converted previously heathen peoples, intentionally built churches on what had been pagan holy sites: the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, for instance, built on the ruins of what was believed to have been a temple of the Roman goddess of wisdom. In the same way, countless churches were built adjacent to ancient circles and standing stones in Northwestern Europe, including a whole series of churches dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, the scourge of Satan (the most famous of these is Mont St. Michel, pictured above), which were situated on the hill tops that were considered especially sacred by the pre-Christian inhabitants.
There was a two-fold purpose to this practice, an ancient precursor to what we today call the “Bad Cop, Good Cop” routine (wherein the suspect confesses to the Nice Policeman, the Good Cop, hoping to earn his protection from the Mean Policeman, or Bad Cop). On the one hand, we have a concrete sign of the triumph of Christianity, a church built sometimes on the very foundations of a previous pagan establishment, sending as clear a message as one of those paintings of St. Michael with his foot on the Devil’s neck. Consider also the very name of the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: “Holy Mary over Minerva”. The name does not simply tell us which building previously occupied the site, it proclaims the victory of the Mother of God over the pagan goddess. This is the “Bad Cop” approach.
We can see the “Good Cop” strategy in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles at the top of the page. St. Paul commends the Athenians for their religious devotion, which may well be an expression of a real desire to find God, but directed toward false divinities. Rather than condemn the Athenians for idolatry, he seeks to redirect them toward the True Lord. In much the same spirit, the Church seems to have concluded that previously idolatrous peoples would accept conversion more easily if they could worship the True God in the same places that they and their ancestors had been accustomed to commune with the old gods. We can see this as an example of “Baptizing the World”, of sanctifying what is good or neutral in the outside world, and using it to build up the Kingdom of God. And in cases such as this, how powerful must the effect have been when the new Christians had a tangible sign, in the old familiar place, of the Victory of Christ?
Trick or Treat?
We can see a similar process at work in the case of many Holy Days. Not that the Church created them for the purpose of replacing pagan festivals, as the naysayers claim: the Christian feasts commemorate real events in Salvation History. Christian feasts do tend, however, to subsume and Christianize some pagan practices, which the Church often allows to happen. Take Halloween, for example. A couple of weeks ago the Catholic blogosphere was filled with commentary, some arguing that Halloween is no more than a modern day pagan bacchanal, others that it is at worst harmless fun, and still others explaining its Christian source and purpose. One of the better discussions is this one [here] by Nathan Barontini. Of the “Four Halloween Mistakes for Catholics to Avoid” Nathan’s mistake #1 is thinking that “Halloween is ‘Pagan’ Rather than Christian.” He points out that it is tied to the feast of All Saints established by Pope Gregory III in the eight century in conjunction with the dedication of a chapel to “All Saints” and not, as he says, “to compete with some Celtic pagan feast.” Quite so. At the same time, one can make a case that some pagan traditions did indeed attach themselves to the celebration of All Hallows Eve, but here we see them serving a new master. As Mr. Barontini says (under the heading of “Mistake # 3 – Make Halloween ‘No Fun’”:
The traditional ghouls, skeletons, vampires, and zombies all speak to a simple post-Easter reality - Christ has conquered death. At Halloween we mock death, we laugh in its face, proclaiming with St. Paul, "O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory?" (1 Cor 15:55).
In other words, like Holy Mary Over Minerva, or St. Michael curb-stomping the Devil, our celebrations on the eve of All Saints Day invoke images of death and corruption in order to show Christ’s victory over the forces they represent.
Our Battle Is Not with Flesh And Blood
This is not to say that we should disregard those Christians who warn about the demonic aspects of Halloween: when Christ is out of the picture, all that’s left is death and corruption, and the powers of darkness are left in possession of the field of battle. I have noticed over the past couple of decades that, as the wider culture becomes less Christian, observances of Halloween are becoming both more elaborate and more grotesque. And there is always a risk when we set out to “Baptize the World” that, if we are not properly fortified and sustained by the Faith and the Sacraments, the World may instead have its way with us. We should not, however, let the Devil have the last word.
Our task is first to “put on the full armor of God” (see Ephesians 6:3-17) and then set out to reclaim Halloween for Christ, rather than surrender it to the hosts of the Evil One.
It is good to bear all this in mind as we approach the so-called “holiday season” (i.e., the Christmas Season). We will hear a chorus of claims that our Feast of the Nativity is really “only” a thinly disguised form of the Roman Saturnalia, or some Mithraic feast, or something similar (never mind that the Birth of Jesus really happened, and these other things are based on fantasies). Even if it’s true (and most such claims are highly debatable) that Christmas took it’s gift-giving from Saturnalia, or Christmas trees from some pagan Germanic Yule tradition, and so on, well, so what? If these things ever did have pagan origins, now they are in the service of Christ, who “will reign until he puts all enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). So, be of good cheer, and when the time comes, throw another Yule Log on the fire, because Christ is King.