Yesterday people around the world, including some of our neighbours here in Bateau Bay celebrated Halloween, a festival which has older origins than our own celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Halloween dates back before the time of Christ to the Celtic-Druid festival of Samhein (pronounced 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. During this celebration of Samhein the Celts would dress up in elaborate costumes which normally included wearing real animal’s heads as masks, and they would try to tell each other what would happen to them in the future, through a sort of ancient form of fortune-telling.
When Christianity spread through the Celtic lands of Europe this ancient festival was Christianised. The First of 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. The first Christian missionaries to Europe tried to help the Celts to believe that they entered the new year with the prayers and the blessings of the saints, rather than the trickery of the dead returning to haunt them.
In re-focusing the Celtic new year (which is today), 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 the hallowed were the saints), 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; and the Festival of All Saints, which as Christians we celebrate today, as we remember with thanks all those saints from ages past who have no particular day during the rest of the calendar on which to be remembered, has been celebrated for many hundreds of years as a Christian response to those who fear death and the dead.
It is no surprise that those learn-ed people who decide what we should read on each Sunday of the year, have given us the portion of John’s Gospel that we heard just a moment ago, to be read today. For an ancient tradition of fearing the dead, and a Christian response of focusing on the saints, this really is one of the best stories in the Gospels available to us. I trust that I am not the only person here who finds this a genuinely moving story, regardless of how many times I have heard it before.
A man is ill, and his two sisters (who are friends of Jesus) have sent word to him in a far off place to come and to heal him. But Jesus does not initially go with them, and so this brother dies and is laid in a tomb, and a stone is rolled in front of it. The grief in the story is inescapable, so much so that the writers of the Gospel remember Jesus himself weeping with his own grief, and the pain of the man’s sisters.
Then as we heard, Jesus asks for the stone of this cave-tomb to be rolled away, and he prays to his Father, and then he calls to Lazarus, the dead man in the tomb. — And the man bound with burial cloth comes forth, out of the place of the dead. Well, I did say that it was an appropriate story for this Festival, given the roots of this ancient celebration – the dead coming back to life to give us a message for the future.
One of the defining activities of Halloween, both as it is celebrated nowadays by our neighbours, and as it was celebrated by the peoples of 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. For me, when I see these things I am not only interested in what the mask depicts, but who is hidden beneath them.
Bystanders at this miraculous, life-giving event, in the life of Jesus and Lazarus would have been keenly wondering what lay beneath the mask of the burial clothes of this dead man now returned to life. He has after all, been dead for four days, in a hot climate in which bodies are normally entombed within 24 hours. We get a sense of the question which everyone in the story is asking when Martha warns Jesus that there will be a stench if the stone is rolled away. As Lazarus walks out of the tomb, do people hold their noses, or do they dare to try to smell from a distance what this man smells like? ‘What is beneath the mask of the burial robes which he wears as he walks from the tomb?’ is the question on everyone’s minds.
Masks, of course, don’t 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 without literally wearing one, think about Hyacinth Buck-et (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 the nobility of 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 all 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. And 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.
It is no surprise, by the way, getting back to our story, that the name Lazarus means “God is my help.” As they remove the burial clothes that mask this dead man who is now alive, they find that something wonderful has happened. He is as they had remembered him to be. The mask of death, through the power of God at work in Jesus, has been just that – a mask.
Lazarus is truly alive once more. He does not come back to haunt the living, like the spirits of the dead which the ancient Celts believed bothered them at this time of year. Nor does he come back, (by the way), as a saint who will live forever (like those saints who we remember and honour today, as we seek their prayers for our lives and the life of our Church on this All Saints Day). No, Lazarus comes back to be a sign not just for those who were gathered around and experienced this event as it happened. Nor even only for those who heard about and who subsequently met him. Lazarus is raised from the dead as a sign for all of us.
The reality is that although Lazarus has been raised from the dead, his earthly body will die again. And we find out a little later in John’s Gospel that there are some who oppose Jesus who plan to get rid of Lazarus sooner rather than later.
The point is this: Lazarus is raised from the dead to begin a new life in Jesus. It is a life that will now never end, even though his physical body will one day be no more; which is the life that you and I share as well – although our new life began rather less dramatically. We believe that through our baptism we have died just like Lazarus died, and have been raised with Christ to a new life which will last forever.
It is true that at some point our physical bodies will be no more, but our hope in Jesus is that our lives will continue for ever with the saints in the presence of God. That new life for Lazarus – in Christ – started the moment that Jesus brought him out of the tomb. That new life for us – in Christ – started at the moment of our baptism.
Now there have been times in the past when that reality has been masked from us, and masked by us. When we have lived as people who come to Church in order to get a ticket to the new life which will start after we die, as a sort of heavenly insurance policy. 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 as 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, so that we might all participate in the eternal life of Christ, which isn’t something which will begin in the future – but which has already begun in each one of us.
When we have lived as 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 learnt to build masks up for ourselves – like those Halloween masks, or perhaps much more like Hyacinth Bucket’s mask, so we have learnt (as well) to build masks up for the whole Church.
The vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, which we have embraced here at Bateau Bay, is one of those opportunities for us to remove unwanted masks. It is a chance for our priests (around the Diocese) 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! And it is a chance as well, for some of the rest of us to remove the masks which have been put on us, when we have been taught that Church is an event which we come to on Sundays as spectators, rather than a community in which we participate every day of our lives.
The Festival of All Saints which we celebrate this morning is a reminder to us that whatever we might fear, the saints of God are with us, in prayer for us, as we live out our vocation as members of the Church. And the story of Lazarus graphically portrays for us, what it means for us to be people who already live in the eternal life of God, and who live, (each one of us), as signs of God’s love and hope for others.
The Festival of All Saints was created by the Church to distract the Celts of the past from a fear of those who had died and from their futile attempts to predict the future. How wonderful it is to focus today on the story of Lazarus, who is raised from the dead to be a sign for us, not of the future, but of the life that we live now in Christ.
May this story, and the prayers of the Saints who we celebrate today, give us the courage to remove the masks which prevent us from living in the fullness of the new life which God has given us in Jesus.