Halloween dates back before the time of Christ to the Celtic-druid festival of Samhain (sow-in), at the end of the Northern summer, when communities celebrated together the harvest, and the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the boundary between this world and the world of the dead became very “thin” and the dead could return to earth to cause trouble and to damage the crops.
It wasn’t all bad news though, they also believed that the presence of these spirits helped their priests to make predictions about the future, and these forecasts of what was to come became an important source of solace each year during the long dark winter months. During this celebration of Samhain (sow-in) the Celts would dress up in elaborate costumes which normally included wearing animal’s heads, and they would try to tell each other’s fortunes.
When Christianity spread through the Celtic lands of Europe this ancient festival was Christianised. The 1st November, the day which had been the first day of the New Year for the Celts, was set aside as a day to honour those saints who did not have their own feast day. Christians pointed not to the dead, but to those who are alive in Christ. This replacement festival, on the day of the Celtic New Year, became known as All Hallows (because hallow means to bless or sanctify), and the day before it became known as All Hallows Eve, which has more recently been turned into Halloween. So the pumpkins and the dressing up, and the games which some people have been engaged in this weekend have very ancient origins in the Druid and Celtic traditions.
One of the defining activities of Halloween, both as it is celebrated nowadays, and as it was celebrated in the past is the wearing of masks. In the distant past these masks were literally animals heads, which people placed over their own faces, and nowadays these have made way for an array of plastic witches faces, and ghosts or something similar. Of course, masks do not have to be physical things which we put on.
If you need an example of someone who is able to create a mask for themselves, then what about Hyacinth Bucket (or is it bucket!) and her long suffering husband Richard, from the television programme, “Keeping Up Appearances.” When we first meet Hyacinth in that programme, we might be fooled into thinking that we are coming into contact with one of the ancient families of nobility in England. She is so proper about everything – her house is spotless, and people even receive formal invitations to come to one of her candle-lit supper parties. But it does not take long for us to find out that Hyacinth Bucket is not a11 that she seems. Despite her airs and her graces we soon find out that her origins are somewhat different, and one of the main plots of the show is her battle, played out in humour, to keep the members of her family (from the past) away from the friends that she is trying to impress in the present.
We might say that she is wearing a mask, just like those Halloween masks which people have been wearing this weekend. She is wearing a mask to help her to pretend that she is someone different, someone altogether more acceptable in her own eyes, than who she really is. The tragedy (that is played out through this comedy), is that actually people would like her a lot more if she lived out the Hyacinth deep inside, rather than the pretence of the mask that she wears.
Before we moved here to Australia, and before I trained to be a priest, I used to travel regularly to different places around the world working on the development of theological education programmes for the wider Church. One of the places that I visited a number of times, and enjoyed very much was Basel, in Switzerland, where a small seminary was developing a programme for training church leaders. Basel is a unique city, it is the point at which France and Germany and Switzerland meet. Depending on which part of the city you are in, depends on which country you are in, and which language you speak, and which taxes you pay.
In Basel every year there is a special festival held in the city centre at which people come in all kinds of wonderful masks, and they process through the streets doing all sorts of things which they would not normally do, when people know who they are. The masks which veil their identity give them permission to go to places and to do things which they would not dream of doing if people knew who they really were — some good things, and I am sure some bad things as well. One year the Salvation Army in Basel, concerned about the abandonment of moral values during this festival, sponsored signs which were put up around the city. The signs simply said this, “God sees behind the mask.”
That is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel passage which we have just heard this morning. Even if it were possible to fool all of the people all of the time, even if it were possible to fool ourselves, God sees behind the mask. God knows who we really are, and God loves us, and chooses to share the work of building his Kingdom with us.
In a Church in South Africa a few months ago, the leaders of that Church tried to express this foundational reality in the way that the congregation shared communion together. Rather than people being given the bread and the wine, they were asked instead to come and collect from the altar table. As they came up (one by one) to receive the bread and the wine they found that a mirror had been placed at the end of the altar. As they received the symbols of the body and blood of Christ they could not help but look at themselves in the mirror which was facing them.
The idea behind that simple way of receiving Holy Communion was to remind people that whatever we think happens with bread and wine, it is us (ourselves) who are consecrated in the Eucharistic Prayer as the body and the life blood of Jesus Christ. That is why we say together whenever we gather around the altar table, “We are the body of Christ.”
There have been times in the past when that reality has been masked. When we have lived as if we are just spectators in a Church in which paid people do all of the ministry on our behalf. When we have lived in a Church which seemed to mask the reality that God has given gifts and skills and talents to each one of us, and not just to a few of us. When we have lived in a Church which seemed to mask the reality that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in all of us, young and old, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. Just as we have learned to build masks up for ourselves, so we have learnt (as well) to build masks up for the whole Church. But every now and again, there are moments and opportunities for our masks to be removed. Often we are too scared to do it, but nevertheless the opportunities are still available: for us to take the risk of stepping out, and being who we really are as individuals; and being who the Church really is as a community.
The vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, which we have embraced here in the Parish of Lakes, is one of these opportunities. It is a chance for our priests to take off the kinds of masks which we have been putting on them for many years — and which disguise them as people who have limitless energy, and unending time, and every skill imaginable, and the answer to every
question! For priests around the Diocese, the removal of that mask (which has often been placed upon them by others) can either be a great threat or a great relief. I have just been away for a week with 20 clergy, including Fr Hugh, so that we could work together on the kinds of skills that we need now to lead ministry teams, rather than the skills of the past which visualised us doing all of the ministry ourselves.
But the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, Church communities in which we are all ministers, not just gathered around one minister, has implications for each of us as well. There are masks which we have learnt to wear in the life of the Church. Some of us have been taught we do not have any gifts for ministry ourselves, some of us have been taught that we come to Church to be entertained or to watch, but not to take part. The new ministry team in this parish, which is made up of our clergy, and lay leaders, and candidates for ordained local ministry, is a constant reminder to us that beneath the masks of the past, the Church in our generation is the same the Church in the first generations after Jesus. A Church which is empowered by the Holy Spirit, for mission and ministry, in which every Christian has a valued place, and a responsibility to share in its life.
This promise is founded for us in our baptism, it is through our baptism that we are made one with Christ and members of the Church: one with his love, and a partner with him in his mission. Our parish ministry team has been discerned to help each one of us to connect with God’s call to us to become fully alive within the life of the Church. The ministry team leaders are not the ones who will do all of the ministry themselves, but they are representative people for us, reminding us that we all have a responsibility and a calling to be involved in ministry ourselves.
In our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus looks at the scribes and the Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day) and says in response, “Do whatever they teach you for they are the ones who know the religious law. But do not do what they do, for they wear religious masks to conceal the fact that their lives are an outward show.” The Pharisees had not only taken the law of Moses but they had added to it another set of laws which were so burdensome that it was impossible for anyone to keep them unless, they became professional religious people like the rabbis. It is this which Jesus is objecting to. And so he is teaching the crowds to continue to respect the law but not to give value to those who teach the law and who have the outward signs of holiness, but who are unable to match their appearance with reality.
God loves each one of us much more than we could ever comprehend. William Franklin, an American Theologian says (in a very simple and profound way): “religious life is rooted in and deeply engaged with reality, with what is.” In this Church we believe that every one of us has been called to use the gifts which God has given us for the work of the Kingdom. There has been a long tradition in this parish, over many years, of this commitment to the ministry of everyone. Now we have in place a larger more representative ministry team, to help each one of us to be involved as well. So this Halloween as you see people wearing physical masks around this area, be alert if you have the strength, to the invisible masks which you are wearing yourself, and which have the potential to prevent you from being involved.
Remember this teaching of Jesus, which we have heard this morning, that it does not matter what the Pharisees pretended to do, it was what they really did which was of interest to God. Remember that sign at the festival in Basel: even if no one else can, God sees behind the masks, and God longs for us to be free, to be the people who he has created, to share with him in his work of mission.
This week it is time to look in the mirror and see who we really are, and to begin to have the courage to remove the shackles of our masks.