Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Real St. Nicholas

          One of the things I hate about going to the shopping malls during the season of the Christmas rush (“the dreadful shops”, as C. S. Lewis accurately styles them) is the music which is piped in over the mall sound system.  It would be nice if they would play the Christmas Kontakion “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One”, and I would even be happy with traditional renderings of the old carols.  Instead my ears are assaulted with the latest auditory atrocity, celebrating Christmas as a time of consumerism, indulgence, and fun in the snow.  And often, to make matters worse, we have St. Nicholas forced to preside over all this—or, as he is described by these contemporary songs, “jolly old St. Nick”.
            Some of the transformation of St. Nicholas, archbishop of Myra in Lycia into jolly ol’ St. Nick (aka in North America by corruption of his name as “Santa Claus”) can be laid at the door of the old 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, attributed to Clement Clark Moore.  It is more popularly known as the poem “Twas the Night before Christmas”.   Many details from the poem have become part of the popular mythology of Santa Claus and his secret nocturnal gift-giving on Christmas eve.  Stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and the children were nestled all snug in their beds.  St. Nicholas appeared on his miniature sleigh full of toys, pulled by his eight tiny reindeer, who were hailed by the names Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.  This St. Nick came down the chimney with a bound, the stump of a pipe held tight in his teeth, his little round belly shaking when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.  Not a lot of holy reverence here; he was a right jolly old elf, and the householder laughed when he saw him, in spite of himself.  I take grim satisfaction from the fact that even this version of St. Nick is wearing thin now in spots—people are objecting to the fact that he is a smoker, and one new politically correct version omits the offending pipe with its indoor second-hand smoke encircling his head like a wreath.  Stay tuned:  soon the anti-fur lobby will object to the fact that he was “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot”.
            I think it is worth comparing this St. Nicholas who lives at the North Pole, with the real one, who lives in heaven.  The main contrasts are three in number.
            First, the real St. Nicholas, as found in his icons, is a lot thinner.  That is, he points us toward asceticism and self-denial as the prescribed path to fulfillment.   The real St. Nicholas is not portrayed iconographically as having a “little round belly”, nor does he appear as “a right jolly old elf” who provokes involuntary laughter.  He appears as a man of God, a hierarch in the holy Church, someone of a serene countenance that comes from much prayer and fasting.  Jolly ol’ St. Nick calls his followers to eating and spending sprees, to buying more and more, even if they go into debt to pay for it, and his pre-Christmas feast day is known as “Black Friday”.  St. Nicholas the wonderworker of Myra in Lycia calls his followers to take up their cross and follow Christ, and his pre-Christmas feast day is marked on December 6, in the middle of a fast.  It is not characterized by a mad scramble to buy, but by worship of the living God.  But some festivity is allowed at a feast:  we love St. Nicholas so much that even on this fast day we are allowed fish, oil, and wine.
            Secondly, the real St. Nicholas carries a Gospel, not a bag full of toys which seem to be liberally distributed whether or not one is naughty or nice.  Santa Claus is rarely without his sack of loot; St. Nicholas is never without the Gospel.  As a bishop, his main task was preaching and rightly defining the Word of Truth, so of course he carries that holy Book.  It contains the words which are the most precious to him, and which he constantly preached to his flock in Asia Minor.  As his icon shows, it is his message to us today as well.  And this message of St. Nicholas is identical with that of his Lord:  “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
            Finally, the real St. Nicholas knows that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), whereas Santa Claus would have us believe that it is more blessed to receive than to give.  Santa is about receiving—that is why young children do not traditionally ask each other “What did you give others for Christmas?”, but rather, “What did you get for Christmas?”  Santa is the patron saint of consumerism.  The authentic St. Nicholas knows that while it is important to receive graciously, almsgiving still results in receiving more grace.  Obviously Christmas morning knows both giving and receiving, and parents will attest that the real fun is watching their children receive.  There is good in both giving and receiving.  St. Nicholas knows this and can keep the two in balance; Santa tends to forget and focus mostly on receiving. 
            None of the above meditations are offered in a Scrooge-like spirit.  Contrasting the true St. Nicholas with the false one does not imply that “Christmas is a humbug”, as the pre-conversion Ebenezer thought.  I like Christmas:  the tree-decorating, hearing from long-absent friends through Christmas cards, the Christmas day turkey.  I even like the gift-giving.  I am not much threatened by Santa Claus; I simply don’t mistake him for St. Nicholas.  That is, I think that however much (or little) we enjoy the pre-Christmas season, we must discern that there are in fact two kinds of Christmas celebrated concurrently in our culture.  One is about consumerism and over-indulgence, pure and simple.  Jesus has little to do with it, which is why in some places the public display of a crèche or saying “Merry Christmas” provoke opposition.  The other Christmas is our own Christian feast, the commemoration (as the service book says) of “The Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ”.  We can partake of both, so long as we remember which one has priority.  The contrast between jolly old St. Nick and the true St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia reminds us of the differences between the two Christmases.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Church of England's Vote on Women Bishop

             On November 20, the Church of England voted on whether or not women may be properly ordained to the episcopate.  That church had already been ordaining women as priests for some years, and the approval of this final step was to have been the fruition of a move that was long in coming, and, as many thought, long overdue.
            Because of the nature of the motion, it needed to be approved by a two-thirds majority in all three houses—that is, by two-thirds of the bishops, and by two-thirds of the other clergy, and by two-thirds of the voting laity attending the meeting.  As a glance at the faces of those voting shows (captured on a link of The Telegraph), this was a very emotional and tense time.  The result, as announced calmly by John Sentamu, the bishop of York, was as follows:  bishops for the motion approving the ordination of women, 44 (versus 3 episcopal votes against it, and 2 abstentions); clergy for the motion, 148 (versus 45 against it); laity for the motion 132 (versus 74 against it).  Since the motion required two-thirds majority in all three groups to pass, in the words of Bishop Sentamu, “The motion was carried in the House of Bishops, and Clergy, and lost in the House of Laity.”  Watch the clip in The Telegraph:  the faces of the bishops and the women priests present spoke silently and eloquently of their bitter disappointment.  Though the move had the overwhelming support of the bishops and clergy, and a large majority of the laity, it still failed to gather the support needed for approval. 
            The results of the vote were immediately denounced in Parliament (the Church of England is “established”—that is, it is the State Church, and legally accountable to Parliament).  One honourable member spoke of his “deep disappointment” that “the Church of England failed to make proper provision for women bishops…a sad day for our National Church and our national character”.  The word (that is, the threat) “disestablishment” was used—not that this was directly threatened, of course!  Rather, the immediate consequence of the present refusal to ordain women bishops, he feared, “would not be disestablishment, but disinterest”.
The Prime Minister himself, Mr. David Cameron, in responding to said Honourable Member, himself also assured Parliament that he was “a strong supporter of women bishops”.  He said that it was important for the Church of England “to be a modern church, in touch with societyYou do have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work [i.e. accept the rule which required a two-thirds majority in all three houses] while giving them a sharp prod.”  There was little doubt that such a prod might conceivably involve disestablishment if the National Church continued to be recalcitrant. 
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, was also deeply disappointed with the result.  He spoke of how the Church had “lost credibility” now with society, and he said, “We have, to put it bluntly, a lot of explaining to do…A great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society.  Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to the some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.  We have, as a result of [the vote] lost a measure of credibility.”
It was at this point that my Orthodox eyes widened a bit and I began the press the ‘replay’ button to make sure that I heard them correctly.  The esteemed gentlemen quoted above need not lose sleep over the possibility that the recent vote will mean that the Church of England will be regarded now with general “disinterest” by the British public.  The fact is that the British people lost interest in the Church of England years ago.  And they lost interest precisely because they perceived that its National Church was pursuing a secularizing path and embracing “the trends and priorities of the wider society”.  Bluntly put, the Church sounded like an ecclesiastical, privileged, and pompous version of what secular society already thought.  Of course “the wider society” thinks that the C. of E. has “lost credibility” by the vote.  They also think that no one has any credibility who says that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine Son of God who offers salvation to all who repent.  But this is to only say that secular people think the Church “has credibility” when it espouses secularism.  But in that case, why bother going to church?  No one needs candles, hymns, and sermons to be secular.  Secular people will regard the Church as “a modern church, in touch with society” if it reflects their own secularism—and then will simply stay home on Sunday morning.  As I said, they are doing this already:  Anglican church attendance is hardly soaring, and some are suggesting that Islam is growing faster in Britain than is the Church of England. 
None of this should be surprising.  C. S. Lewis (who died in 1963) warned of the result of this secularizing trend some time ago.  In his 1959 talk (preserved as “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”), he warned his Church of England seminary audience that if they continued to offer the common man a secularized version of the Gospel, it would “produce only one or other of two effects.  It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist.  What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity.  If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is.”  Lewis apparently discounted the possibility that if the Church echoed the “trends and priorities of the wider society” that multitudes would beat a path to the parish church door.  And as it turns out, Lewis was correct, except that the options available to the common man in Britain now also include Islam.
I suggest that the lesson to be learned from the recent vote is that we are called by God to offer to the world something different than it already has.  The world already possesses liberal secularism in abundance.  Our task is not to assure the world that we share its values, but to convert them to a different set of values.   Of course the unconverted world finds apostolic Christianity “unintelligible”.  It considered its Founder’s message unintelligible to the point where it crucified Him.  Until the world repents, and believes the Gospel, and embraces a different set of “trends and priorities”, it will continue to find the Faith unintelligible.  That is why our apologetic and evangelistic task must begin at the beginning.  We can no longer assume that the average person in the wider society is a Christian.   That is the classic mistake continually made by State Churches.  Great Britain hasn’t been Christian in any sense worth discussing for years, and our task now is to re-lay Christian foundations which were overturned and uprooted decades ago.  In making such a beginning, we must be clear that we are dealing with thoroughly secularized people, however much a thin veneer of Christianity may remain painted overtop.  To quote Lewis again, “Great Britain is as much part of the mission field as China.”  Our call is to missionary work, to make the Gospel intelligible and compelling to modern people.  We do this by changing the people, not the Gospel.
What then for the Church of England?  Archbishop Rowan Williams said, the vote “did nothing to make polarization in our church less likely, and the risk of treating further polarization of views is a very great one”.  Polarization is, for the archbishop, the great disaster, the one thing he fought valiantly against for his entire tenure as archbishop of Canterbury as he strove to keep the various fighting factions together within the same church.  The Church of England is built upon the foundation of what some have described as “glorious comprehension”, the ability to be so comprehensive as to hold together in a single body both high church and low, both liberals and conservatives, both fundamentalists and feminists, both those who believe the Resurrection of Christ actually occurred in history and those who regard it as a mere metaphor, both those who regard gay marriage as simple common sense and those who regard it as an abomination.   A very comprehensive church indeed, and one can only sympathize with anyone whose assigned task it is to keep everyone together in this venerable institution.  But this task is an impossible one, since it involves attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable.  And whatever the task of a State Church may be in securing national unity (the original raison-d’etre of the Church of England), it has never been the task of the apostolic Church founded by Christ to give equal time to both truth and error.  The Church which held the ecumenical councils did not think it proper to allow both an Arian party and a Nicene party to co-exist within it, nor did it lament the polarization of the Arians and the Orthodox.  Indeed, the Council of Nicea was called for the express purpose of polarizing truth and error, and for drawing a firm dividing line between the different groups espousing them. 
I do sympathize with those in the Church of England who were bitterly frustrated by the results of the vote.  The Church of England, considered as a body, clearly wants to ordain women as bishops, and I see no reason why they should not do so.  Let the State Church become as secular as it wants, and let those unhappy with a secularized church leave and form an alternative.  This alternative would not be established, of course, but if the Church of England continues to not ordain women bishops, it might become disestablished anyway.  And it is at least arguable that being established has not made the Church’s job of converting the population any easier in the long run, and even functions to some disadvantage.   Islam is growing there, and it is not established.
In its current state, the Church of England is a house divided, and this internal division is a source of frustration for all concerned within it.  Those pushing for the ordination of women have vowed to go on pushing until they are successful, while those who oppose it will continue to rely upon the internal legal machinery of the voting process to frustrate the majority, and will suffer increasing denunciation for it.  No one is happy, and the situation is clearly intolerable.  Like Israel in the days of Elijah, its membership seems to be limping between two opinions (1 Kg. 18:21).  Enough limping.  It is time to choose.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Let the Fire Fall

       Permit me please to share with you the words of an old Pentecostal chorus: “Let the fire fall, let the fire fall, let the fire from heaven fall. We are waiting and expecting; now in faith dear Lord we call. Let the fire fall, let the fire fall. On Thy promise we depend. From the glory of Thy Presence let the Pentecostal fire descend!” Okay, so it's not the greatest of lyrics, nor am I suggesting we that should sing it as a tropar in tone six in our Orthodox worship. But it does express something profoundly Orthodox nonetheless—that spirituality is built upon experiencing the Pentecostal Spirit.
       Pentecost is at the heart of our Faith, and our life as Orthodox Christians begins with experiencing the power of the Pentecostal Spirit. That is, it begins with baptism, and as our Lord said, that baptism is not simply a baptism with water (as was the baptism of St. John the Forerunner), but also a baptism in the Holy Spirit. Shortly before His Ascension, our Lord told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, “for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). That word was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were gathered together in one place. “Suddenly,” St. Luke reports in Acts 2, “there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting, and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributing themselves and resting on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”. It was this experience that the Forerunner predicted when he said that the Messiah would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:16). This fiery baptism was not just for the disciples who sat in that upper room. It is for us as well. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware once wrote in his classic The Orthodox Church, the Church is “a continual Pentecost”. The Pentecostal experience which they disciples received on the Pentecost so long ago is the same experience offered us today through Holy Baptism and Chrismation.
       Our progress in faith depends upon our continually receiving the inflow of that Spirit. This is what St. Seraphim of Sarov meant when he said that the goal of the Christian life was the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Holy Spirit in our baptismal initiation, but that is just the beginning. We are meant to be continually and continuously filled with the Spirit, over and over again, as we live the Christian life participating in the sacramental mysteries of the Church. This should come as no surprise to us. When we say our morning and evening prayers, we begin with the Prayer to the Holy Spirit. Part of this prayer says, “O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and abide in us...” The Spirit came once upon us at our baptism; we pray that He may continually come and abide in us every day after. Our goal is to acquire more and more of Him, to stand in the place of prayer and penitence and expectation long enough for the fire of heaven to fall.
       That is what all our fasting and prayers are about—the preparation of our hearts so that the Spirit may come and abide in us with all the fire of God's love. That is what the Eucharist is about. Read the prayers again, and count the number of time the Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout the Liturgy. Listen to what the celebrant says when he begins the Anaphora: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you!” “And the communion of the Holy Spirit”—the Greek word here for “communion” is koinonia, participation, sharing. As the lituriologist Robert Taft reminds us, the thought here is not so much of the sharing inspired by the Holy Spirit, but rather of sharing the Holy Spirit Himself—it is the Holy Spirit which we share. The priest prays for this again during the Anaphora, asking that the Eucharistic Gifts “may be to those who partake for the purification of soul, for the remission of sins, for the communion [or sharing] of the Holy Spirit”. Through receiving the Eucharist, we partake of the Holy Spirit.
       I have always been drawn to Pentecostalism. But not (I hasten to add) the Pentecostalism of which I see so much today, and which seems to consist largely of a name-it-and-claim-it health and wealth gospel, and of loud “praise bands”. The true Pentecostalism is that which yearns for the heavenly fire, which longs for the flame of God's Presence to burn brightly in our hearts, consuming the dross of our sins. The true Pentecostalism yearns to stand in one place until the fire falls, and then to sing, “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit!” The true Pentecostalism is Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not primarily and fundamentally a matter of icons, and candles, and brocade. These things are not ends in themselves, but simply means to the end, the end being “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit”. We forget this at our peril. The next time you say your prayers and ask the Heavenly King to “come and abide” in you, remember Pentecost. Remember what it really means to be Orthodox.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What Does God Want from Us?

       In the view of many people, what God wants is for everyone to become religious. And given the fact that many religious people are (to be frank) something of a pain in the neck, not surprisingly this view is a hard sell in the world. By “religious” I mean the state whereby a person holds certain private opinions about God and the world, and performs certain rituals which they think will make them acceptable to God. These religious people (as I am using the term “religious”) believe and proclaim that the world is sharply divided into two categories: religious people who are acceptable to God because of their beliefs and rituals, and non-religious people who do not share these beliefs or perform these rituals and who therefore are not acceptable to God. It is often further held that the non-acceptability of the non-religious people means that God will send them to hell when they die. You can see why this view is a hard sell.
       The New Testament in general and the words of Jesus in particular give no support to this view. In fact our Lord reserved His harshest criticism for religious people (such as the Pharisees, who were spectacularly religious), and was comparatively easy on such non-religious people as prostitutes and tax-collectors. Indeed, as Fr. Schmemann never tired of reminding us, Christ was killed by religious people. One might almost say that He was killed by Religion. I would therefore suggest that God is not that interested in anyone becoming religious.
       Notwithstanding the words of the New Testament, one can still find many in the Church who insist that what God wants from us is religion, if not religiosity. They presume and sometime say that a person who (for example) holds the view that the Filioque is true is therefore somehow less acceptable to God than someone who rejects the use of the Filioque; that someone who makes the Sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of two (or with two fingers instead of three), or who makes the Sign from left to right instead of from right to left, is thereby less acceptable to God. Don't get me wrong: I also reject the use of the Filioque in the Creed, and for the same reason that I reject the belief that two plus two equals five—namely, that it is factually incorrect. And I teach my children and my flock to make the Sign of the Cross as do all the other Orthodox. But I don't imagine that such usages make one more acceptable to God. One's acceptability to God is not based on such things.
       So, what is our acceptability to God and our salvation based on? What does God want from us? In a word, love. In the Gospels, someone once asked Christ what He thought God was fundamentally interested in—in Jewish terms, what was “the first and greatest commandment of the Law”. Christ responded, “The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one! And 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'” (Mk. 12:29, quoting Deut. 6:4-5). That is, God wants relationship. The answer shouldn't have come as a surprise, since it is found in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. In Psalm 50 for example, the psalmist pours scorn on the notion that God is fundamentally interested in external sacrifice. Indeed, he represents God as rhetorically asking, “If I were hungry, would I tell you?” (Ps. 50:12) Even back then God wanted relationship more than sacrifice: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice and thanksgiving; call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify Me” (v.13-15). Even back then sacrifice only held value to God when it was offered as the expression of gratitude within the context of relationship. What God wants is our love.
       This means that God is the greatest victim of unrequited love in all the world. For He loves everyone, every single soul that ever existed, and everyone living today. Yet most of us simply ignore Him, and live as if He didn't exist. We take all His gifts—life and air, food and sex, children and grandchildren, rainfall and sunshine—and never once say “thank you”. He loves us passionately, deeply, relentlessly, tragically, and many people never give Him a second thought. In fact we prefer almost anything to God—money (or “Mammon”), sex, popularity, entertainment, golf or jogging or sleeping in on a Sunday morning instead of going to church. We have filled our world with idols, turning these divine gifts into alternatives to God who gave them to us in the first place.
       We can see God's perplexity at this perversity when we read the Scriptures. In the prophecies of Isaiah 5:1f, for example, we find the song of the vineyard belonging to God's “beloved” (i.e. His people): “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it, and he looked for it to yield grapes—but it yielded wild grapes.” In this song, God is the farmer, taking infinite trouble and care over His vineyard so that it would produce fruit—the spiritual fruit of love for God and of a righteous life. He did everything necessary, and it should've produced grapes. But, strangely, with almost miraculous perversity, it produced worthless wild grapes instead. God's perplexity can be seen in His plaintive question in verse 4: “What more was there for Me to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” This divine perplexity and anguish (to speak boldly) can be seen in Psalm 14:2f: “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God.” He looks in vain: “They have all gone astray; they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one”. God's universal love for us largely goes unrequited.
       Love for God, however, has another aspect to it as well. In Christ's answer to the question of which was the first commandment, He did not only say that the first commandment was to love God. Though not asked what was the second commandment, He went on to say as well, “The second is like it: you shall love our neighbour as yourself.” (He cites Lev. 19:18). Why give the second commandment when He was only asked about the first? Because the first contains the second; it is “like it” as a kind of corollary. Loving God involves also loving His children. St. John is clear about this too, and speaks with his customary bluntness: “If any one says, 'I love God' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20).
       Religion is okay. But it is not the fundamental thing that God wants. What He wants is for us to love Him back, and to love our neighbour for His sake. Religion has value only insofar as it helps us do these things.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween Reflections in November

             I have just been listening to an old song from 1962 by Bobby Pickett called “Monster Mash”.  It reminds me of all the old monster films I so delighted in when I was a child—re-runs on Friday “Fright Night” at 11.30 p.m. when channel seven in Buffalo, New York broadcast the old films from the 1930s—films like “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and the “The Wolf-man”.  Were they cheesy?  Oh yeah.  Did I and my generation love them?  Oh yeah.  Documentary proof of our love can be found in old copies of the then-popular magazine “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, by Forrest Ackerman.  Monsters were the best.  We loved monsters and ghost stories and being scared.  Like all children, we could discern the difference between artificially-induced fear that was safe (things like monster movies and the roller-coaster), and things that made one afraid that were truly unsafe (like violence in the home, and bullies in the school-yard).  Kids are not stupid; they know that monsters are safe and bullies are not.
            This delight in being scared is not new.  Delight in ghost stories is an old delight, and such tales are often told around the camp-fire.  Children delight in being thrilled by such things, for the same reason that they delight in being thrilled (that is, terrified) by the roller-coaster—because they know the thrill will not last, and will not harm them, and thus is not real.  They return to real life more energized from having received a quick shot of childish adrenaline.  Monsters and ghost stories are fun and energizing.  If anyone denies this, I have nothing more to say to them here; I am speaking only to people who truly remember what it was like to be a child.
            This delight in monsters was the main component in my childhood experience of Halloween.  My dad, who in some ways remembers my childhood more accurately than I do, tells me that I thought Halloween was The Best.  It beat Christmas.  It was a time to delight in spookiness, to dress up in a costume, having laboured long and lovingly on deciding what this costume would be.  It was a time to go out after dark with one’s friends (a rare treat in itself), friends who were similarly dressed up, and to admire each other’s costumes.  It was a time to go from door to door and accumulate an immense stash of candy, which was then to be sorted, admired, boasted about, complained about (apples? really?), stared at, shared, and consumed for days afterward.  The trick was to make the stash last as long as possible.  And possibly (I was an only child) to trade with one’s siblings to make a bargain, trading one’s inferior candy for a better prize, assuming that one could con one’s brother or sister into swapping their chocolate bar for your apple.  Like I said, Halloween was The Best.
            I am told that a number of people today attempt to co-opt this day as their own special religious day—Wiccans have claimed the day for example, absurdly equating the ancient western Christian “All Hallows’ Eve” (i.e. eve of All Saints’ Day) with their own long-dead feast of Samhain.  Nice try:  pagan Samhain has been gone for a LONG time, but I suppose if one is desperate enough to mine ancient western history for long extinct festivals, anything will do.  In fact there is no actual historical continuity between the two feasts of the actual historical Samhain and what the Wiccans currently do on October 31.  But I suppose, like they say, “whatever gets you through the night”.  Candidly, I find it hard to take Wiccans too seriously, since modern Wicca is so obviously a made-up, self-invented religion.  It reminds me of Scientology, except that the Scientologists always keep their clothes on.
            Anyway, the historical disconnect between Halloween as presently practised in North America by children in 2012 and the historical pagan festival of Samhain is one reason why I think Halloween culturally harmless at the present time.  The fact that the visual iconography of the day includes pumpkins, and ugly old witches with long noses (i.e. women quite unlike real live Wiccans), and black cats, and spooks, and gravestones, and an assortment of other scary stuff does not trouble me, because I well remember my own dalliance with such scary stuff.  It did not mean that I was flirting with actual evil or The Dark Side.  It just meant that I loved scary ghost stories and monsters.  Boo!
            The pastoral challenge for the Church today is to discern what the various things in our culture mean, and to respond appropriately to each one in turn.  If we fail to denounce things that are genuinely evil and worthy of denunciation, we will justly deserve censure.  (I think here of such genuine evils as abortion, pornography, torture of prisoners, and child abuse.)  If we denounce things that are essentially harmless (like Christmas trees and Halloween) we will lose our credibility with the world we want to convert.  Some Christians denounced “rock and roll” when it first appeared and now justly appear silly—such as the Christians in the 1960s who denounced the Beatles for their long hair, or Elvis Presley for his gyrations.  Such things now seem harmless and benign, and no one now denounces the Beatles for wearing bangs, or Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes”.  In the same way, if the Church denounces children for wearing costumes and pretending to be fairies or Spider-Man, and going door to door collecting candy, this will result in the Church losing credibility in the eyes of the world.  And it’s not like we have any credibility to spare. 
            Now that Halloween 2012 has come and gone, it is time to let it go, to bless the children with all their delight in scary stories, and to lead them by our loving example into the Kingdom.  There are many battle-grounds in which the Church is called to fight for the eternal truth of Christ.  Children’s Halloween is not one of them.