Saturday, 16 October 2010

Origin of All Hallows in the context of the Christian Year

I know nothing about helicopters, but I once heard, in a lecture by a man who does, that there is a nut on a helicopter, situated I think above the bit you ride in and under the propeller, that holds the whole thing together; it’s called the ‘Jesus nut’.

As Grace said when we were talking about this at housegroup, ‘That’s because it’s the crux of the machine’.

‘Crux’, that we use in common speech as we say ‘the crux of the matter’ – the real heart of a thing – is the latin word for ‘cross’.

I think in that usage in common speech, ‘cross/crux’ is referencing not the cross of Jesus, but a place where things intersect, the place where everything holds together. And that’s what the cross of Jesus is. It is literally ‘the crux of the matter’. God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself (see Colossians 1:15-20). The cross of Jesus sits at the heart of creation, holding everything together, reconciling all things to God and to each other: it is the place of integration/integrity, where all things are made whole/holy.

It is no accident that Jesus died on a cross of wood, and that the cross is therefore often referred to as the ‘tree’, because trees are also crossing-places.

If you imagine in your mind a winter tree – the trunk and branches and twigs standing against the sky – then add to the picture the part you know is there but cannot see, the branching rootball going down into the earth, then you have a picture of something that is in both form and function similar to a pair of lungs. Trees are the lungs of the earth. Our words for breathing are inspiration and expiration – and the ‘spir’ part of the word comes from the latin word ‘spiritus’ (spirit). When we say someone expires, we mean they die. When we say someone is inspired, we mean they are illumined in a visionary way. The Hebrew word ‘ruach’ from the Old Testament means equally spirit,wind/breath, and that comes through to the way we use the latin root counterpart, spirit. We say someone is ‘spirited away’ when it is as though the wind snatched them.

A tree, however, does not inspire or expire, it transpires. The breathing of a tree creates chemical stability as it shuttles water, oxygen and carbon between the two different worlds in which it lives – the dark world of the earth where its roots are, and the light world of air where its branches are. To us, creatures of light and air, the dark earthy world means death, the light airy world means life.

Trees create stability, slowing down the movement of water through landscape to prevent drought and flood, drawing water from the earth and evaporating it into the sky; and holding the rain, as it falls from the sky, in the earth by its root system.

So a tree both creates stability and security, and also facilitates exchange between the worlds of darkness and light, death and life, earth and air. A tree is a cross, a crossing-place, holding things together as the Jesus nut does. And Jesus died on a tree, won life for us on a tree.

In his dying he entered the dark world and opened a way back to the light. He entered death and opened a way back to life. So in the cross we find a place of exchange or interchange, an alchemical place of transformation, where a way through is made between death and life. The cross, tree of death and tree of life, becomes the instrument of resurrection. It is the place of transpiration of the breathing of Holy Spirit.

When Christianity came to the ancient Celtic world of these isles, the spirituality in place followed the rhythm of the seasons in the agricultural year. Very wisely those early missionaries – Ced, Chad, Columba etc – did not attempt to sweep away the devotional observance of the Celtic people, but instead they enlarged the meaning of holy days already in place to embrace the new understanding that came with the Gospel.

The Christian Celtic year went in a circle that followed the rising and falling of darkness and light.

Imagine a circle (like a clock) subdivided into 4. At 12 o’clock is high summer, the zenith of the year, the summer solstice when day is longest and night is shortest. At six o’clock is the deep dark of the winter solstice. At three and nine o’clock are the spring and autumn equinoxes, when the length of day and night balance equally. Holding that picture in your mind, let’s go round the clock, starting at the bottom at 6 o’clock.

In the depths of the winter, at the time of the longest night of the year, when all is cold and dark and dead, the ancient Celts celebrated Yul, a Nordic word that means ‘the Turn’. They called it that because from that day onward the light would begin to grow as the days lengthened. So they saw it as a time of the coming of the Infant Light – when the light was at its smallest and weakest but would begin now to grow. So it was that the Christian Church settled at Yul the Feast Of The Incarnation, Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of the Infant Light to a dark world as Jesus is born. The year turns, ie begins again, at this point. Everything turns on the coming of Christ.

Halfway between six oclock (the winter solstice) and nine o’clock (the spring equinox) comes Imbolc, at the beginning of February. This was a time for spring-cleaning, getting rid of clutter, sweeping through the house and shaking everything out. Upon this festival the early Christians settled the feast of Candlemas, the time of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary after childbirth – so focussing on the same theme of ritual purification.

At nine o’clock, the spring equinox is Easter – which actually historically happened around then. The spring equinox used to be the festival of the goddess Oestre (hence the name Easter), where we also get the word ‘oestrogen’. She was the personification of feminine being, and was represented as a pregnant woman giving birth. The ancient Celts saw the earth as like a fertile woman – wells and water sources were seen as the openings of her womb, from which the water of birth heralded the coming of life, so that places that grew up around wells were called names like ‘Marywell’, ‘Osmotherly’, ‘Ladywell’, ‘Motherwell’ etc – expressing both the ancient traditional belief and the Christian Gospel it embraced. Jesus, son of Mary, burst forth from the dark tomb into the light at Easter; he is the risen light bringing the hope of new life, and this observance harmonises with the coming forth of new life from the wombs of the farm animals at this season of the year.

Halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice comes the Celtic festival of Beltaine, the Mayday festival of the return of the sun – the releasing of the spirit of the summer. This was a time for blessing flocks and fields as the days lengthened, the warmth returned, and everything began to grow and strengthen. ‘Beltaine’ meant something like ‘bright fire’, and it was upon this festival that the early Christians settled the festival of Pentecost (it also fitted here historically with Easter), when the Spirit came in tongues of fire to rest on the heads of the faithful and inspire them with new life and energy and hope.
Moving on up to twelve o’clock and the summer solstice, we come to the feast of St John the Baptist. This festival sits at the crown of the year when the days are longest and the sun is at its height and the light is greatest. John the Baptist is the herald. He points down the year to the coming of Christ at Yul, in the darkest deepest time, and thus connects and balances the darkness and the light.

Halfway between the summer solstice at twelve o’clock and the autumn equinox at three o’clock comes the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, harvest-time, which the early Christians re-designated as Loaf-mass, that came to be called Lammas. This was a time of hand-fasting (betrothal) and all the obvious harvest celebrations.

At three o’clock, the autumn equinox, the Church placed the feast of St Michael and all angels. Michael is a warrior and the protector of the people, and as part of his protection of us he brings a reminder and a warning. He stands at the gateway between summer and winter, reminding the faithful that dark days are coming and that they must make ready. This has a simple agricultural application but also a spiritual application: that for each of us death is coming, and in the summer of life we must make our souls ready, so that when death comes it does not find us unprepared.

Halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice comes the Celtic feast of Samhain, the Celtic Day of the Dead, upon which the Church settled the feast of All Saints (All Hallows), when we remember the whole great cloud of witnesses including those who have passed on to greater life.
The Day of the Dead was the last festival of the dying year, when the Old Year was laid to rest with thanksgiving for all that was past, and it also had a function similar to the Jewish Yom Kippur, of laying to rest any old feuds or grudges, and getting rid of the spiritual baggage that holds us back – relinquishing that which is spiritually dead and no longer serves us. It balances against the spring-cleaning purification of Candlemas, when the house was swept clean. At All Hallows the house of the spirit is swept clean.
The Day of the Dead was also a time of giving thanks for those who have added joy and meaning to our lives, who have now passed on: a time of Remembrance and gratitude. It is interesting that we have (UK) Remembrance Day at this time of year because it ‘coincidentally happens to be’ the time of D-Day, the ending of the War.
Samhain was thought to be a dangerous time spiritually as people’s minds turned to consider the dead and the veil between the worlds of death and life grew thin. All Hallows affirms the strength, unity, security and safety we have in Christ our salvation.
For the early Celts, the day did not start at sunrise as it does for most us, but at sunset – which is also when the Jewish day stars, hence lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday evening. The ancient Celts therefore believed that dreams were not the processing of the old day, but visions for the new day.
Because the day began at sunrise, Halloe’en is the starting of the Feast of All Hallows – it is the beginning of the Day of the Dead.
Samhain, like all these Celtic fire festivals, was not one day only but spread over about three days. Samhain was the last festival of the year, so in most traditions it was considered that the new year began at the close of Samhain.
However, in some traditions, a period called No-Time passed before the new year began. The length of No-Time varied between one tradition and another. For some, No-Time lasted only a few days: but others believed we were in No-Time right the way through until Yul, the turn, when the seed of the light arrived and the year began again.
I believe that the early Church were working with the concept of No-Time in establishing at that point in the year the season of Advent, a time for inward reflection and preparation for judgement.
Advent was not, in the early church, a time to prepare for Christmas; it was a time to think about the second coming of Christ, an austere period of self-examination balancing the Lenten fast of early spring. It was also a time of longing for the return of Christ. This fits well with No-Time, the season of inwardness and reflection at the deepest darkest point of the year, the time of cold waiting before the seeds could germinate, when the next season’s lambs and calves were hidden deep in the bellies of their mothers.

So it is that Hallowe’en is not at all ‘Satan’s Day’ as many Christians say. It is not a time to be wary and suspicious of – it is a Christian feast and is also a part of the Celtic observance of the spiritual heartbeat that underlies the rhythm of life in the agricultural year.

There is no need to be afraid of Hallowe’en, or anti-Hallowe’en. We are numbered among the saints: let us not be afraid of our own shadows! Of course as Christians we don’t want to be pursuing silly nonsense of skeletons, or dressing as witches or ghosts. And absolutely we do not want to tangle with Ouija boards or any other foolish dabbling in and among forces we cannot see and do not fully understand. But Hallowe’en itself is a good thing.

It is the time for us to look back over the year that has gone, embrace its lessons and release its dross. It’s an opportunity to hold in remembrance those we have loved and have with us no longer, and a time to review our own practice and habits of life, resolving that the ‘evil be weakened in me and the good raised up’.

Hallowe’en is a quiet time, quite introspective, for considering what we need to let go of, what no longer works for us now. And then we enter No-Time, going down into the still and silent weeks of the year, experiencing a micro-version of the watching and waiting to which Christ called all of us.

'The world turns but the cross stands' is the motto of the Carthusian order. So in this rhythm of darkness and light in the turning of the year, the darkness and light wax and wane, ebb and flow, the seasons change and we reflect those changes in our fasts and feasts by which we enter and explore meaning in the seasons of the year and the seasons of our lives. Meanwhile, like the Jesus nut holding everything together, the cross stands at the heart of all creation, drawing all things into one and reconciling all things to God, holding open the way through between death and life, darkness and light, maintaining the spiritual realm of teh Making in a condition of stability, balance and peace.


Julie B. said...

Amazing. Now I need to read this again four times to soak in all that you probably sat down and wrote in just minutes. I am going to pass this on too!

Pen Wilcock said...


Hi Julie! Lovely to speak with you earlier xxx

Gerry Snape said...

Really great post. Thankyou.

ebgindc said...

Hi Ember - How lucky I am to know you and to benefit from your spirited sharing. Thank you for all you write, all you pray, and all you do! I am curious to see if I've managed to untangle the way to post to your blog! XOXO from Ellen

Buzzfloyd said...

The other reason that the Jesus nut is so called is because without it, every thing comes apart, but with it everything is held together.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Gerry - nice to see you!

Yo, Ellen! Yes you found your way in safely! HAve you gad trouble posting a commnet here before? I know Magdalena never succeeds in getting a comment up here - I wonder if it's some kind of mysterious electronic incompatibility? Whatever. Anyway, great to see you here now xxx

Pen Wilcock said...

Absolutely, Buzz! :0)

Ganeida: An outreach of Harvest Family Church said...

I can't believe it! I actually disagree with you on this one. lol :D Not that we should be afraid of Halloween. Of course we shouldn't. As believers the old religion has no power over us but the old Celtic religion was a very earthy fertility religion. Think the Paps of Anu & I think it was the River Shannon was refered to as a godesses urine. So when you get to Samhain you get something very dark indeed & when you read the old stories you see the Celts themselves were afraid of this festival. & even the warriors locked themselves in their tuigens & hid away from the prowling spirits. I understand your point but I do not think it is wise to try & marry the old & the new in this way. Invariably people end up being ignorant of both traditions. I will stop. I dislike Halloween & of course, for us, it is all backwards anyway because it is spring here, not autumn. lol Loved your history explanation even if I must disagree with your conclusion. Can we still be friends?

Ganeida: An outreach of Harvest Family Church said...

Sorry Ember, you are going to think me a right nutter. I'm logged in to a different account. Ganeida

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi! There's a missionary saying 'No Gospel before culture', which is not to say the Gospel is subservient to culture but that it is always mediated through culture, therefore whatever culture we live in as Christians, we will inevitably find a marriage of old and new has taken place.
This happens even in the Bible, where the influence of the quite separate twin strands of Zoroastrian and Abrahamic thought is evident in the text.

Darkness in the spirituality of ancient Celts? Certainly - and in the spirituality of Christians ancient and modern too. It was Christians who hung the dissenting Carthusian priors until they were nearly dead, took them down, cut of their genitals, slit them open, pulled out their entrails (they were still alive), cut of their limbs then beheaded them.

Darkness and light is in every human being and every religion.
But All Hallows is a Christian feast, and I am not suggesting that Christians celebrate pagan feasts but Christian feasts.

And yes - duh! - we are still friends!!!! ;)

Ganeida said...

Ah yes, there will always be some osmosis but to deliberately do it ~ despite what the church has done in any country I can think of, not wise methinks. God certainly had a fair bit to say to the Israelites about doing it too! lol

I can see the complications [& let's not get onto all the atrocoties so called christians have committed down the centuries or we will be here until the end of eternity ☺

There is a difference between All Hallows & Halloween I grant you but too often it seems the two are merging ~ or perhaps not in England? It seems to have in America & that is certainly true out here in our extremely secular culture where Halloween gets bigger & brighter every year but very few people indeed have heard of All Hallows, let alone understand it's meaning.

And for the record *sigh* I am as guilty as anyone else because my thing is pre~Christian Celticism [even out here I can get the academic studies] & The Culdees' thinking, who may or may not have been druidic in origin, merges very nicely with Quaker thought & principle. I know. I should just shut up. ☺ I'm glad we can disagree & still be friends. ;}

Pen Wilcock said...

No, no, don't shut up! You know about this and what you have ot say is interesting!

I think I need to clarify what I'm saying.

I'm not advocating a Christian person involving herself in a Samhain ritual. I'm saying that as Christians we need not let the seasonal obsession with ghosts and ghouls obscure for us the spiritual aspects of the seasonal rhythms that we can gladly enter and endorse.

So that, as Christians, while we would want to have no part in dodgy spiritual dabbling, we can recognise the value in clearing out the dead wood from our own practice, remenbering with gratitude saints in Heaven, and letting go of what is past that we may be fruitlessly clinging onto.


Devorah... hey... good name!

Ganeida: An outreach of Harvest Family Church said...

lol, Ember, I think I just know too much about things better not known about. It complicates issues that should really be quite simple. All Hallows/Halloween is one of those for me. I know too much about the 2nd & thus the 1st leaves me uneasy because I know what it was originaly built on. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

I like Ganeida ~who was ban~sidhe[woman poet] in her own right as well as Merlin's sister ~ I said I was a Celticist! ☺ but the Lord & I have issues just now. *sigh* & while I quite like Devorah & I certainly love the symbolism that goes with it's meaning I am also having a mini~meltdown [quietly in the background] because I like to be liked & I'm really a very harmelss sort & I can't think why the Lord is pushing this quiet [if ditzy] unassuming little Quaker lady in a direction she's not sure she wants to go. *sigh*

I have potatoes to peel. The trouble with potatoes is they leave the mind free to think. I think I should stop thinking just now & just live in the moment. Have a Blessed Sunday. [Is it Sunday there yet?]

seekingmyLord said...

Ember, I want to thank you for writing this post. It was well thought out and beautifully illustrated with the intertwining of religious symbolism regarding the seasons. I truly enjoyed your perspective and will have to read this through again.

However, (as I am always conflicted just to make things complicated it seems) the early church's purpose for All Hallow's Eve is completely lost in the U.S., except perhaps for some practicing Catholics. What takes place as the Halloween traditional celebrations cannot be reconciled with Christianity, even in the smallest measure.

I know some Celtic pagans here and their feelings are that the early Christians were forceful zealots of a new emerging religion that tried to take over their well-established and much older religion, instead of the Christians having their own holy-days. Also, Christians gave up many of the traditions and holidays our Lord Himself celebrated in the process.

Seasonal celebrations are ingrained in all religions, but then there is Ganeida's point also in that the seasons for those in the southern hemisphere do not align with the traditional holidays.

Pen Wilcock said...

@ Devorah - it is now! Bless your Monday x

@ seekingmyLord - Hiya! :0)
Yes, indeed the rhythm of the agricutural year can only be worked out on a local basis to tie in to liturgical observance.
In the UK too 'Hallowe'en' has become a festival both shallow in understanding and dangerous in practise, fascinated with ideas of ghouls and death and the unseen spirit realm. It's for that reason that I feel it might be helpful if Christians, instead of oozing disapproval (which I don't mean you are, but I see generally), looked for elements they could flow with to celebrate, as the secular majority are not going to stop their party just cos we don't like it.
I would see that not as spiritual compromise, but finding some areas of resonance to begin a dialogue in which we become credible and worth hearing, and also offering something to have a ceremony and a party about that resonates with the seasonal emphasis while remaining under the shelter of Christ's holy Name.

There's also 'trick or treat', but that's a whole separate issue I think, and I want to post about that today or tomorrow.

Thanks for your input ladies - helpful to me in my own thinking, and thoughtful as ever.

Stealth Jew said...


did you bring up your children doing the traditional holidays? All/some/none?

seekingmyLord said...

Ember, I understand and I am one of those who has been oozing with disapproval--yes, pretty much that would sum me up, to be honest, so I do not find it an offensive description. Halloween completely ruins my favorite season of the year for me, because we cannot go into a store, turn on a TV, or just go to a doctor's office without it being in our faces.

You are right, however, that "secular majority are not going to stop their party just cos we don't like it," but that is not my problem with it. As Christians, I accept that we are going to clash with the world. (As much as I prefer peace, I feel there are times we should clash for the Bible states that even God hated specific things.) My concerns are with Christians celebrating Halloween itself or a variation of it as an alternative. Well,...I will stop there as I have blogged about this recently myself at the beginning of October.

Buzzfloyd said...

I don't think Christ need be afraid of the dark. Christians can bring the light back into the tradition.

Stealth Jew, Ember brought us up with some traditional celebrations, particularly Christmas and Easter. I don't remember celebrating Hallowe'en in any fashion as a child, but we always celebrated Harvest Festival at church and at home.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Stealth Jew !
I think that I wasn't really organised enough to keep traditiona festivals when my children were growing up - I mean, we went to church and joined in with Harvest Festival, Easter, Christmas, Pentecost etc, and sometimes we had homegrown liturgies and prayer times, but we didn't keep a rhythm of observance. Once we had St Patricks Day party when everything had to be green - including all the food :0D

Hi seekingmyLord! Bless you for your determination and commitment, and for your clear thinking and willingness to go against the flow. x

Lucy said...

Nicely put, but you did get a few words wrong.I am sure you will hate me for this but I hate to see people mangle my language.

A bean sé or a bean sidhe is a woman fairy.It is said that she sits late at night on peoples' roofs screetching a lament to herself as she combs her long grey hair.To hear her was bad luck because it would mean a death in the family or someone close by.

Beltaine is spelt Bealtaine and we don't really spell Lughnasadh like that any more, it's now spelled Lúnasa.

Pen Wilcock said...

No, that's right Buzz, we didn't celebrate Hallowe'en - in fact I seem to recall going down to the school to object to it being so high profile there. Teacher was a bit nonplussed but polite.
But the biggest thing of that sort we did was to stop the entire county (schools) singing Carmina Burana for several years. They relied on your dad to train the choirs and I thought (still do) it reeked of evil. So he wouldn't do it, so it had to be dropped from all the county concerts.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, Lucy! :0)

Ganeida said...

Lucy: I think I am the one guilty of the misspellings ~ & mytholgy. Ban meaning white/fair, bean meaning woman ~ only I've seen it spelled the other way too & as it is easier for a non gaelic speaker like myself who has trouble correctly spelling her native English I went with it. Sidhe originally meaning peace [hope I spell this right] as in Aes sidhe, people of peace. I should have used the term ban file [I can't get the thingy that should be over the final vowel] which would have been more correct. Many apologies. I do actually know better & should never use the more general terms I know aren't strictly correct but my computer hates gaelic spelling & always has a spac attack. Can't think why...☺

Pen Wilcock said...

Hey! Our own in-house Celtic experts! Now, how cool is that!?!


Lucy said...

Ganeida: you managed quite well for a non Gaeilge speaker.Bán means blank but it's used to describe white as well.If you mean fair as in fair hair the word would be fionn.Sídhe doesn't mean peace, it means fairy.The word for peace as in silence is ciúnas, the words for contented peace are suaimheas and síocháin. The term Aes Sídhe is new to me.I looked it up and realised that you were referring to the Tuatha Dé Danann, fairy people.When you say ban file, I'm guessing you mean bean fíle but that means a woman poet.To get the little thing on words I go here:

We call the thing a fada. There is no word for it in English.Fada means long.

Ember: what is the Carmina Burana?

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Lucy!

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh. If your page cuts out half the link (as mine does on this little netbook), it won't be of any use to you as it doesn't go live.

Anyway - if you google on 'Carmina Burana' there's a whole lot about it on Wikipedia.

Basically it's a medieval cycle of collected songs, satirising church music and liturgy and exploring themes of gambling, greed, money, the vanity of life, sex, rape, licentiousness and drinking. Odd choice for primary schools massed choirs, I thought.

Ganeida said...

Thank you Lucy. ☺ The little I know of Gaelic I have gleaned from my history reading, thus usually having the oldest [& multiple] meanings for any words & often some quite odd spellings. I know absolutely nothing of modern Gaelic ~ & I tend to muddle my Scots & my Irish & I know they're not the same! lol

Hawthorne said...

Hallelujah!! At last a considered, sensible, non-hysterical response to Hallowe'en! Thank you Ember! xx

Pen Wilcock said...

And thank you, Hawthorne! Welcome! :0)