Halloween has become more Christian than Christmas.
Christians have long had issues with Halloween. We’re not sure what to make of it, we’re not sure if it’s ok to celebrate it, if we’re celebrating demons, monsters, and evil things. Michael Jackson, at the beginning of the landmark video for “Thriller,” felt compelled to provide a disclaimer that this video, in which he turns into a werewolf and a zombie, did not endorse the occult. For the same reasons that many Christians have felt the need to speak out against Harry Potter and Spongebob Squarepants.
I myself have very mixed feelings about Halloween. I love chocolate, but I hate candy. Things like Jolly Ranchers, Gummi Worms, and Tootsie Rolls make my stomach turn. As far as I’m concerned, the ultimate Halloween prize is fun-sized Kit Kats. You want to know how to get to heaven? Eat a couple fun-sized Kit Kats, and in heaven you’ll be. Probably another reason for my apathy about Halloween is that I’m afraid I’ll get stuck in some strange neighborhood, far from my own, and have to go to the bathroom. You want to know what hell is like? I’m probably about 10 years old, far from home, and am told at house after house that, no, I cannot use their bathroom. That frantic run home was hell on earth.
But consider the theological implications of Halloween. Halloween is the ultimate equal opportunity holiday. EVERYONE gets candy. On the surface, it’s the picture of the Gospel! There is no checking of qualifications at the door. You come, you receive. Christmas, on the other hand… well, you know the song: “He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town.” Yikes! You’d better hope that you’re on the good list, or you’re not getting any presents! David Sedaris, an amazing humorist, writes in one of his essays that in Holland, if a child is bad, Saint Nicholas and his helpers beat the offending child with a switch. If a child is REALLY bad, they throw him into a sack and take him back to Spain (which, of course, is where St. Nicholas is from). Our punishment isn’t as harsh as the Dutch one, but it’s still based on judgment. If you’re good, presents. If you’re bad, lump of coal.
Think of what’s probably the most famous Christmas story of all time: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge is a bad guy, who won’t let his employee have Christmas off or put a single briquette of coal in the furnace. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s ghost is dragging around a huge chain, which he says was forged by all the selfish and evil deeds he committed during his life.
Marley says to Scrooge, “You do not know the weight and length of strong chain you bear yourself! It was as full and as long as this seven Christmas eves ago and you have labored on it since. Ah, it is a ponderous chain!” This is what we believe…you will reap what you sow. We write books about why everything you do today matters forever. All too often, this has become the syntax of our Christian faith. But it doesn’t have to be.
In the opening lines to his letter to the Ephesians (a sinful people: see 4:1, 4:17, 5:3 etc), St. Paul makes clear what the foundation of the Christian faith actually is: the free gift of God in Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (1:3-10).
Paul doesn’t say “Shape up!” He doesn’t say, as Marley does, “You do not know the weight and length of strong chain you bear yourself! It was as full and as long as this seven Christmas eves ago and you have labored on it since. Ah, it is a ponderous chain!” Instead, he says, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you!” He doesn’t go all Christmas on them! He doesn’t check his naughty-and-nice list! He treats them like it’s Halloween.
According to Paul, the Christian life is based on the wonderful free gift of God: “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” “He predestined us for adoption.” “In him we have redemption.” And not only is this a gift, this one way love of God, it’s an incredibly generous one! “The riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us!”
This is what the Christian life is really like. We approach the throne of God. We look awful. Maybe we even look like something that’s been dead for awhile…it’d be the most accurate costume we could wear! We have nothing to offer except our appearance, the sin from which we need to be saved. But everyone gets the candy! God’s grace is a free gift, offered lavishly to sinners.
The message of A Christmas Carol and too much of today’s Christianity is “You are a sinner, better become a saint.” The message of the Bible and of Jesus Christ is “You are a sinner, and yet you are a saint!”
Listen again to Paul’s words as he opens his letter to the Ephesians: “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
How passive is this? God is the actor at every moment! He is the gift-giver, we are the receiver. It’s incredible! We are adopted…according to his pleasure…with his grace…that he bestowed…on us in Christ. We are saints because God has decided to call us saints! He has taken the initiative in our lives, coming to us in our sinful state, and given us his free gift of righteousness.
We have each, like Jacob Marley, forged for ourselves a ponderous chain. But every single link of it is worn by our savior, Jesus Christ.