Friday, October 31


Many of the ancient peoples of Europe marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating a holiday in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to influence later customs was Samhain, a holiday observed by the ancient Celts. Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. According to their tradition, the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. The Celts sought to ward off these spirits with offerings of food and drink. They also built bonfires at sacred hilltop sites and performed rituals, often involving human and animal sacrifices, to honor Druid deities.

When the Celts were absorbed into the Roman empire, many of their traditions were adapted by the conquerors as a part of their own celebrations. In Britain, Romans blended local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees—from which the game of bobbing for apples was derived. In many places such as Scotland and Ireland, Samhain was abandoned only when the local people converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages. But even then, pagan folk observances were linked to a number of Christian holidays.

Thus, many of the old Samhain traditions thought to be incompatible with Christianity often became linked with Christian folk beliefs about evil spirits in the celebration of Halloween. Although such superstitions varied a great deal from place to place, many of the supernatural beings now associated with the holiday became fixed in the popular imagination during the Renaissance. In British folklore, small magical beings known as fairies became associated with Halloween mischief. The jack-o’-lantern, originally carved from a large turnip rather than a pumpkin, originated in medieval Scotland. As belief in many of the old superstitions waned during the late 19th century, Halloween was increasingly regarded as a children’s holiday. Beginning in the 20th century, Halloween mischief gradually transformed into the modern ritual of trick-or-treating. Eventually, Halloween treats were plentiful while tricks became rare. As a consequence, the holiday became engrained in the fabric of Western cultures as just "good clean fun" for the kids--albeit with ghosts, gobblins, haunted houses, et al.

Of course, Christians have long attempted to avoid flirting with even the appearance of evil. In an effort to steer clear of the ghoulish aspects of the holiday, churches and families have provided instead alternatives for their children such as Reformation or Harvest or All Souls parties. Children dress up as Bible characters or figures from church history. And then they go bobbing for apples, have pumpkin carving contests, and play Bible trivia games and the like.

But even a well-intended Christian alternatives to Halloween can take bizarre turns. For example, consider the Hell House, at Trinity Church, in Cedar Hill, Texas. There, an actor made up as a demon guides teenage visitors round re-enacted scenes of AIDS funerals, botched abortions, and virtual flame-grilled damnation, to impress on them the consequences of sin. Hmm. Doesn't that seem to bring us full-circle to dressing up as ghouls and frightening people?

Sola Scriptura

"It is very hard for a man to believe that God is gracious to him. The human heart can't grasp this. It is a truth revealed in Scripture, and Scripture alone." Martin Luther

Born in the Saxon village of Eisleben on November 10, 1483, Martin Luther was descended from the German free peasantry, a fact in which he took great pride. His father was a copper miner in the mining area of Mansfeld--but humble as he was, he determined to procure a sound education for his children. Thus, Luther received a Brethren of the Common Life education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1502 and his master's degree in 1505. He then intended to study law, as his father wished. But in the summer of 1505, he suddenly abandoned his studies, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. Later in life, Luther explained it by recalling several brushes with death making him astutely aware of the fleeting character of life. Luther made his profession as a monk following year and was ordained as a priest the year after that.

After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities. The following year Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, assigned him to the University of Wittenberg, which had been founded just six years earlier. He was to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. Two years later, he had the opportunity to visit Rome and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy.

Increasingly concerned about corruption within the church--both material and spiritual--Luther suddenly became a public and controversial figure when he published his Ninety-Five Theses, on this day in 1517. They were supremely academic in character—Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences were being sold to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter's in Rome. The Theses caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely distributed. Luther's spirited defense and further development of his position through public university debates in Wittenberg and other cities resulted in an investigation by the Roman Curia that led to his condemnation three years later and his excommunication a year after that in 1521. Summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons.

By that time, it was clear that the protesting churches--or Protestants--would not succeed in reforming the whole church as Luther had wished, and so they established a new ecclesiastical structure rooted in the idea of Sola Scriptura, "Scripture Alone." Thus was born the Reformation.

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