I thought it would be fun to give a brief overview of the holidays we are living through right now: Reformation Day and All Saints Day. I wrote this a few years ago for my students at PSU Berks.
First – Reformation Day – October 31, 1517
Take a journey to Europe 500 years ago. In those days, the church had major power over all aspects of society – there was no freedom of religion, in Europe you were a Christian subject to the Roman Catholic church (or you were a Jew or a heretic – a second class citizen or a renegade facing death). It was a time when people struggled to gain spiritual security for they believed salvation was earned by pilgrimages, prayers, good works and the like. Most people could look forward to thousands of years in Purgatory after they died, purging their sins in the fire, before making it to heaven.
Martin Luther was the son of a peasant who managed to become a monk, earn a doctorate in theology and begin teaching at the University of Wittenburg. By all accounts he was a good monk, he later said that if anyone could earn God’s love it was he. But he also wrestled with how a righteous God could be appeased, how could God accept sinners? Through studying and lecturing on the Scripture, over time Luther came to realize that salvation was not about trying to do good, but rather from being sinful and knowing it. Salvation comes as a free gift of grace from God.
When representatives from the Pope came to Wittenburg, selling indulgences to fund the renovation of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, Luther had had enough. The Catholic Church would tell people that for a certain price they could buy an “indulgence” which would free their dead ancestors from purgatory sooner (i.e., for 50 bucks grandma is out 50 years sooner). Luther saw this for what it was: making money by manipulating people who did not know any better.
On October 31, 1517 Luther posted 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Castle Church door. Really all this meant was that he wanted to have a debate on indulgences, and here were his arguments against them. To make a long and meandering story short, this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. If you are a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian or pretty much any Christian other than Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, you can say thank you to the Reformers of the 1500s for changing the world!
The Reformation can be summed up (over-simplified): grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone. Where the Catholic church said there were two streams of authority, scripture and tradition, Luther and those after him said scripture alone was the authority. The Catholic church said you were saved by some combination of grace and works, what God did and what you do, Luther emphasized it was grace alone (because you can do nothing to save yourself).
Halloween and All Saints’ Day
Most people have no idea today is Reformation Day. They certainly know it is Halloween. Where in the world did Halloween come from?
First of all, November 1 is All Saint’s Day, celebrated in the Catholic Church. Basically, from very early on Christians honored those who died for the faith (“martyrs”). Often in various places a celebration to remember the life of a specific martyr on the anniversary of his or her death would become a tradition. Such martyrs were considered saints. Not all saints necessarily died for their faith. Various saints had their day and still do: February 14 is St. Valentine’s Day, for example. But over time the church realized that many more saints had died than could be remembered, plus there were numerous other saints that may have lived and died but no one even knew about or recognized.
In response to this, the Church began celebrating “All Saints Day”, a catch-all day to remember all the saints known and unknown (kind of like how Veterans’ Day remembers all veterans).
One thing that is cool and that those of us who are not Catholics can take away from this is the truth of the Communion of the Saints. All Saints’ Day is based on the principle that all of God’s people, living or dead, in heaven or on earth, are connected together as one community. In other words, those who have died in Christ are still alive in some way, in God’s presence. The Church is not just all the people on earth today who are Christians, but includes all the people through the ages who are known by Jesus. For a scripture on this, check out Hebrews 12:1-3 where it speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses”.
An interesting thing is that All Saints Day was originally May 13, it was moved to November 1 for similar reasons to why Christmas is on December 25. Before Christian times, pagans celebrated festivals on these days. For many Celts (in Scotland, Britain), November 1 was the new year and the day prior to that, October 31, was Samhain (Lord of the Dead). On this day the Celts believed the souls of the dead would wander the earth, mingling with the living. In order to scare away evil spirits, the Celts would wear masks. When Rome came to Britain they added a few other traditions, such as bobbing for apples.
“Hallow” means “holy” or “sanctified” which is how we get from “All Saint’s Day” to “All Saints’ Day Eve” to “All Hallows’ Eve” to “Halloween”. Halloween is rooted in preparation for All Saints’ Day combined with the pagan traditions surrounding Samhaim.
So have a Happy Halloween, All Hallows’s Eve, Samhaim and Reformation Day!