So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)
This coming Monday, November 1st, is the feast of All Saints Day, which means that Halloween will soon be past. It also means that Christmas soon will be coming, and not only are the geese getting fat but the doubters and mockers will be getting ready for another round of “demystifying” the Incarnation by pointing out (or making up) connections to pagan holidays and practices . . . and then we’ll go through it all again at Easter time. This seems a good time to take a few moments to reflect on the holiday (i.e., Holy Day) coming up in a day or two (and, even more to the point, its vigil Sunday night), and to look forward to those celebrations that are to come.
Good Cop, Bad Cop
First, a little background. Many, many years ago, in the days of my neo-pagan youth, I was intrigued to learn that the Christians, as they converted previously heathen peoples, intentionally built churches on what had been pagan holy sites: the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, for instance, was built on the ruins of what was believed to have been a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom. In the same way, countless churches were built adjacent to, on top of, or even inside ancient circles and standing stones in Northwestern Europe. A whole series of these churches were dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, scourge of Satan. The St. Michael churches (the most famous of which is the spectacular Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France) were typically situated on the hill tops that were considered especially sacred by the pre-Christian inhabitants.
There was a two-fold purpose to this practice of co-opting heathen holy places, an ancient precursor to what we today call the “Bad Cop, Good Cop” routine (wherein the suspect confesses to the Nice Policeman, the Good Cop, hoping to earn his protection from the Mean Policeman, or Bad Cop). On the one hand, we have a concrete sign of the triumph of Christianity, a church built sometimes on the very foundations of a previous pagan establishment, sending as clear a message as one of those paintings of St. Michael with his foot on the Devil’s neck. Consider also the very name of the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: “Holy Mary over Minerva”. The name does not simply tell us which building previously occupied the site, it boldly proclaims the victory of the Mother of God over the pagan goddess. This is the “Bad Cop” part of the equation.
We can see the “Good Cop” side of the coin in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles at the top of the page. St. Paul commends the Athenians for their religious devotion, which may well be an expression of a real desire to find God, but directed toward false divinities. Rather than condemn the Athenians for idolatry, he seeks to redirect their piety toward the True Lord. In much the same spirit, the Church seems to have concluded that previously idolatrous peoples would accept conversion more easily if they could worship the True God in the same places that they and their ancestors had been accustomed to commune with the old gods. We can see this as an example of “Baptizing the World”, of sanctifying what is good or neutral in the outside world, and using it to build up the Kingdom of God. And in cases such as this, how powerful must the effect have been when the new Christians had a tangible sign, in the old familiar place, of the Victory of Christ?
Our Battle Is Not with Flesh And Blood
This is not to say that we should disregard those Christians who warn about the demonic aspects of Halloween: when Christ is out of the picture, all that’s left is death and corruption, and the powers of darkness are left in possession of the field of battle. I have noticed over the past couple of decades that, as the wider culture becomes less Christian, observances of Halloween are becoming both more elaborate and more grotesque. And there is always a risk when we set out to “Baptize the World” that, if we are not properly fortified and sustained by the Faith and the Sacraments, the World may instead have its way with us. We should not, however, let the Devil have the last word.
Our task is first to “put on the full armor of God” (see Ephesians 6:3-17) and then set out to reclaim Halloween for Christ, rather than surrender it to the hosts of the Evil One.
It is good to bear all this in mind as we approach the so-called “holiday season” (that is, what a more Christian era called the “Christmas Season”). We will hear a chorus of claims that our Feast of the Nativity is really “only” a thinly disguised form of the Roman Saturnalia, or some Mithraic feast, or some such other nonsense (never mind that the Birth of Jesus really happened, and these other things are based on fantasies). Even if it’s true (and most such claims are highly debatable) that Christmas took it’s gift-giving from Saturnalia, or Christmas trees from some pagan Germanic Yule tradition, and so on, well, so what? If these things ever did have pagan origins, now they are in the service of Christ, who “will reign until he puts all enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). So, be of good cheer, and when the time comes, throw another Yule Log on the fire, because Christ is King of all.
Featured image top of page: Mont St. Michel, from http://www.francejourneys.com/.