When The Night Has Come: A Post For Halloween

Christian-Cross-Carved-PumpkinWinter is coming, so they say; the clocks have gone back, the nights draw closer, we enter into Allhallowtide, a liminal season where past and present and future and worlds both visible and hidden start to coalesce.

It’s at this time of year, the ancient whispers go, that the veil between worlds thins. This isn’t a curtain I tend to poke behind, but the winter seems so dark this year; the spectre of old wars and the clatter of lying keyboards haunt the landscape as powerful men rape and pillage their way through their self-declared empires. Never mind Halloween, the veil has been thinning apocalyptically for a while now. I’m not sure I like it.

But maybe that’s something to think about this Halloween. Maybe we need to catch a glimpse of another world – not a world of wraiths and abandoned graveyards, a world lit only by flickering pumpkin-light, but a better world, somewhere more peaceful, somewhere more just, somewhere more real. Now is not the time to disguise ourselves as monsters so the monsters cannot break us, now is the time to stare through the tear in the curtain and catch a glimpse of hope instead.

Because as the world slips into the dark, hope’s the only thing that will keep us going, the only trustworthy will o’ the wisp willing to light our way. Stick to that path, lest we put too much trust in ghosts.

This is the season of all the saints and all our souls, and while we decorate our homes and schools and supermarkets with the dead and the undead, really this is a season that reminds us of a resurrection to come; at least that’s how I’m looking at it. Things may be in retreat at the moment, the hopes and fears of all the years gathering on the streets. That’s what winter’s all about, after all.

Yet spring will emerge one day, just as it always does. And while now we see through a veil, thinly, then we will see in full. That’s what keeps us going; that’s what brings us through the dark.

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Remembrance Day

Stalag_XIIA_POW_campMy great uncle was captured at Dunkirk. He never talked about it much, but it’s possible to put the story together from the history books; taken to the Stalag XX-A camp in Poland then, when the Red Army approached, forced to take part in the Long March to Germany, enduring subzero conditions. Hundreds didn’t make survive the journey. No wonder Albert never wanted to talk about it.

Remembrance Day brings into focus our ambiguous relationship with war. “Never forget” is all very well, but it needs to mean something; we remember the fallen,, but what about the survivors? We remember the poppy fields of WWI but what about the squaddie who lost his legs to an IED last year? We say “Never again”, but we just love the arms industry’s £7 billion contribution to the country’s economy every year. We argue about red poppies, white poppies, no poppies, but still the bombs fall. Sometimes they don’t hit the enemy.

Our churches hold Remembrance Sunday services every year and it’s important we do so, just as it’s important that we pause for two minutes at 11am on the 11th November, to carve out a sacred space in the world to remember what it means for our nations to be involved in war after war. There’s a problem, however, when this becomes a public act of piety with no depth, an act of remembrance that lasts just long enough to lay a wreath.

Today is about more than history; remembrance, if it’s to mean anything, has to be a living and active thing – it has to be about the present as well. We have to remember those fighting in distant lands, and those back home but struggling to readjust to civilian life; those killed in action and those fleeing their homes with nowhere to go; the past, the present and yes, we remember the future. Remembrance should help us do something about the future, give us the long term perspective we need to deal with the breaking waves of history. “What should we do about IS?” is a huge question, but at least part of the answer lies forty years ago; remembrance should be prompting us to think about how to end the wars that could haunt our children’s generation, to consider how we treat our neighbour and the sort of politics we publicly rubber-stamp.

The church holds services of remembrance and houses war memorials and accompanies the marches of dwindling survivors. In a world where war has scarred our social psyche, both through global combat and the sudden, vicious targeting of civilians that seems to mark modern conflicts, we have to decide where we stand, what remembrance actually means for us. What would Jesus do to pick up the pieces of world wars and all the present and future wars we face?

Two minutes isn’t long enough to come up with an answer, two minutes isn’t long enough to process the ambiguity of following the Prince of Peace in a world full of drones and nuclear missiles. But we have to come up with an answer – compassion and grace demand it. And they’re the difference between pseudo-sacred rituals and true, heartfelt remembrance.

Moments and Markers of Memory

Bonfire_Night_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1034248I’d forgotten it was Bonfire Night today. Remember, remember, the fifth of November, so they say, but I think it’s likely, but for glancing at my computer’s clock at just the right angle, that I’d’ve lived in ignorance until the sky lit up tonight.

So add November 5th to the Allhallowtide season of remembrance. We light fires to remember this one, launch fireworks into the air to celebrate the uncovering of a terrorist plot. Guy Fawkes is memorialised in other ways, of course, the masks of Anonymous embedding him, via V for Vendetta, into modern culture, but tonight he’ll make his mark on the landscape, all flames and smoke and explosions.

We mark the world around us in an attempt to lock down our memories as a people. Nowadays it’s blue plaques and war memorials. Back in the day, when Joshua entered the Promised Land, he took twelve stones from the Jordan to act as a focus for the story of the Hebrews. When Jacob has his strange, liminal wrestling match with God he renamed the place so that even geography would remember how he and his family came to be there. But time goes on; the memories fade; we remember fireworks more than we remember Fawkes. Memorials are baked into the world around us, but we rush past them, we don’t stop to read the plaques

Maybe the same problem affects Christianity’s central ritual. The bread and the wine mark a pause in time and space when we can gather as a community and remember Calvary and the empty tomb. But I’m as guilty as anyone of eating and drinking too quickly, of not taking the time to remember even during an act of remembrance. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the church ‘remembers’ over the last few days, but really it’s about more than recollection. If we forget the important things we’re doomed to repeat the bad things, and it doesn’t matter how much space we create for memory, we still have to actively remember, to make this a part of our lives. Are the memories we need to sustain us truly embedded within us, not just the physical world of commemorations and calendars?

Or do we forget, even in the middle of our rituals?

Allhallowtide

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There’s a bridge spanning the A38 near Burton-on-Trent that’s covered in bouquets and posies. I drive under it every day, dimly aware that the bridge is now a memorial, a means of remembering a young woman who fell to her death in September. For a few seconds during a long commute I’m reminded of life’s fragility, linking that bridge to all the other flowers tied to lampposts that mark the passing of a stranger’s loved one.

Today is Halloween, traditional day of kids donning fancy dress and adults ignoring the doorbell, but in the liturgical calendar it marks the start of Allhallowtide, a three day season celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day; in the UK the period is sometimes extended to incorporate Remembrance Sunday, red paper poppies joining graveside bouquets. In short, it’s a season for commemorating the departed, for celebrating the lives of those who’ve gone before us.

Certainly in my tradition we don’t do much with this, possibly due to suspicion over Halloween itself. But there’s something in the idea of a season of communal remembrance, a time in which our communities can come together and celebrate those we’ve lost. Maybe it provides a time of solidarity with friends and family who still grieve, be those scars new or ancient. “Mourn with those who mourn,” Paul once said. Allhallowtide might be a good reminder of that.

Sometimes this act of remembrance is tied up with justice. Speak the names of those killed by violence, by the abuse of power, by legislation that victimise the most vulnerable among us. Speak out against the school shootings and the bad cops, the beheadings and the vests full of explosives, the domestic abuse and the cluster bombs. Speak out and remember, because if our theology is divorced from justice and grace and love then it’s not worth the shelf space.

And if we end this season with Remembrance Day then we remember the fallen, both those lost in battle and those who fell but lived on. Remember the PTSD and the suicide rates and the homelessness. There are other kinds of loss that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s Halloween. The sun will be going down soon, and a largely forgotten season of memory will commence as the earth freezes over and dies and sleeps, awaiting its Easter in the spring. But in the cold of November, poppies and flowers tied precariously to lampposts could transform the dark; transform the memories of death, the memories of all saints and all souls and all wars into celebrations of life; could keep the fires of love and justice burning as we head ever onwards into winter.