A few years ago I found myself talking to a coworker, who is not a Christian, about how her daughters dress up for Halloween. She was adamant that Halloween be “a day to remember the dead,” and as such, would not let them dress up as princesses or superheroes— unless they were dead princesses or dead superheroes. Part of me wanted to laugh at how secularism had run itself full circle: my friend was trying to add supernatural meaning to what was, as far as she, her neighbors, and her children knew, a completely meaningless holiday. It is a little like when people say that the “real meaning of Christmas” is not presents, but familial felicity. But the thing is, she really wasn’t that far away from the truth of this ancient Christian holiday, despite the zombie princess makeup.
There is so much to love about the Autumn Triduum (not a real term) of All Hallows’ Eve, the Feast of All Saints, and the Solemnity of All Souls, and it warmed my heart to know that, even in the midst of record level commercialism and unabashed secularism, modernity had not stripped everything of meaning away from this great tradition. There was, in my friend’s rather ghoulish idea for Halloween costumes for her first grader, a profound bit of grace.
Because, of course, All Hallows Eve is about the dead. As is All Saints, and All Souls. These three days force us to confront our own mortality, and my friend was doing that in a way that most people resist. When we read the Litany of All the Faithful Departed, or read aloud the names of those we love but see no longer, or place photos and mementos on a Muertos altar, or even hang a plastic skeleton outside our door to spook tiny princesses and superheroes (dead or otherwise) we are remembering those who have departed this life.
And, whether we dwell on it explicitly or not, we are remembering that someday, we will be the dead. Our children and grandchildren will place our photos on a Muertos altar and will send our names to the parish secretary for inclusion in necrology lists. The people who live in houses we once lived in will hang skeletons on doors that were once ours, while our own skeletons lie in the ground. In a world that would have us believe that if we just have enough money and things to distract us we can avoid death completely, reflecting on our own mortality is a counter-cultural act.
Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls are about remembering the dead, but not in a nostalgic sense. We aren’t simply reflecting on people who once were, and who are now no more. Christians remember their dead in the same way we remember Christ in the Eucharist: by participating in a perpetual, transcendental, reality. Most of the time we don’t stop to see it, but it is ongoing. All Saints and All Souls affirm that we worship the God of the living and not of the dead, as Jesus reminds us. But that is because even those who are dead to us are alive to God; our journey with Christ does not end when we draw our last breath. Our baptism brought us into the Church, and our death cannot take us out of it.
So, we the Church Militant do the same thing we are always commanded to do: we intercede for the world. We pray for those we love but see no longer. We pray for those who are near death, who are about to enter into a different stage of their Christian life. We thank God for the examples of those who have gone before us and ask these saints, whose journeys are over and whose rest is won, to pray for us on our own journey— toward our death and beyond death.
We cannot know what the other side of this world will look like. I very much doubt it will look like our usual Halloween decorations. But we do know who is king of that world, and that is enough for us.