Blame it on Gregory

Greg O Lantern

Another Halloween has passed, with the requisite articles or blogposts explaining, sometimes calmly and sometimes stridently, that Christians should not be involved in this particular holiday. Some use the argument that the holiday is used by Satanists. This may be the  weakest of the arguments– I have never really understood that one. If Satanists like to get Blizzards at Dairy Queen, do we as Christians need to avoid that particular activity or place as a form of self-protection? Is that how we are to interact with the world… backing up and walling ourselves away from groups that we are afraid are bigger and badder than we are? A more subtle argument is that we can disempower a holiday by our lack of participation. With this spin, the issue is not so much spiritual or moral, but political or economic. Perhaps this has merit, but I wonder what statistics would say about the success of Christian boycotts. If it works, and is deemed to be worth the effort, then fine… why not?

<In an act of “full disclosure,” I don’t celebrate Halloween… at least not for many years. I live in the Philippines where Halloween is a very anemic holiday at best, especially as compared to Undas… the day of honoring one’s dead ancestors. But even in the US, I generally preferred to turn off the lights at home, trying to convince the neighbor kids that I am not at home, and then watch a scary movie in the dark.>

A more interesting argument is that Halloween has pagan roots. This same argument will be repeated for Christmas and for Easter. I am very surprised that I have not heard Americans make that argument for Thanksgiving, when Harvests festivals around the world have very strong pagan roots (and the first American Thanksgiving had strong participation by pagans).

But if a holiday has “pagan roots” or at least is on the same day as a pagan holiday, why would we as Christians think that is okay?

Well, I think one could probably blame it on Pope Gregory the Great. And in actuality, it seems like he was actually pretty great. He had great impact on Christian Missions in the Western Church (something that was mostly done by the Eastern Churches during the first millenium), as well as Pastoral Care.

In Pope Gregory’s guidance to a missions team heading to Britain, he said,

“The heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols which are to be found in them… If the temples are well built, it s a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to adapt them for the worship of the true God… And since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food; when they have eaten and are full, then they must render thanks to the giver of all good things. If we allow them these outward joys, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.”

Letter by Pope Gregory (18 July 601) to Mellitus. (A History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neill, London: Penguin Books, 1990), pg 58

What is the argument here? Gregory was seeking accommodation. Buildings used to honor “devils” can be converted to honor God. Festivals that are for pagan practices can be converted to worship God and give joy to the people. It seems clear that Gregory believed one of two things (or perhaps both):

  1.  God is more powerful than Satan so days, events, or locations that were used for worship of Satan can be converted, taken over, by Christians for God.    <And/Or>
  2. Prior usage for pagan purposes does in no way corrupt a day, event, or location. In other words, there is no such thing as “contagious magic.”

Both of these above points appear to be in much doubt today. Perhaps the Christian fascination with the War metaphor for Christian interaction with the world, has left us with a tendency to think that we are in constant risk of being on the losing side. And there appears to be a lot of people that reject “magick” but still believe in “contagious magic”– where association with or history of a sinful item or day ruins it forever. So bad things cannot be redeemed, only quarantined.

So if you have read your Bibles and still come to the conclusion that Christians must avoid anything that has pagan association (stand by for a long list in that regard), and believe that such pagan associations are irredeemable, and wonder why some Christians just don’t understand your viewpoint…. just blame it on Gregory.

An interesting article on Halloween is below. I am not a big fan of Item #5, but the rest I think have merit. If you think that since the article is about Halloween has passed, it lacks relevance— you can fish it out again for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and pretty much any other day of the year, since every day has some celebration going on.


Joining the Festivities?

We have finally finished our Christmas celebration here. We had a number of friends and relatives over for a Christmas day feast here in Baguio City, Philippines. Then we talked to some other relatives across the ocean. We will keep up the Christmas tree at least through New Years. I don’t like the tendency for people (and especially merchants) to keep pushing Christmas celebration earlier… but I do like it to linger a few days past the 25th.

Christians struggle with holidays a fair bit. Every year, some Christian groups (as well as “Christian-ish” groups) argue that good Christians should not celebrate Christmas because of its so-called pagan roots. To me the argument is not valid, but I won’t repeat that. You can look at that in “Christmas. It’s Okay…

But we are not alone. I was reading a little tweet by a Muslim who was trying to discourage fellow Muslims from celebrating Christmas. Now some of the other tweets by the same person suggest a viewpoint that is a bit out of the mainstream. Still, it is always a bit awkward when it comes to celebrating holidays of other religions. Here in the Philippines, the President every year tosses in special holidays for certain Muslim holy days.  <Note: If you ever get to be the head of government in your country… please plan your official holidays months in advance. Don’t just toss them in at the last minute. It creates unnecessary chaos.>  I have to admit that I don’t join in the celebration of Muslim holidays here. I have an acquaintance here who is Jewish and he said I was welcome to join a Hanukkah celebration here in town. I wasn’t able to this time.  But I hope to next year.

But this got me thinking about festivities.

  1.  Christians really should feel comfortable with finding ways to celebrate in Christian holidays. Not everyone feels this way.  Here in the Philippines, a lot of Protestants actively avoid the community fiestas. Sometimes it is because of the vices (gambling, drinking, and general carousing), but often it is because of it being attached to the celebration of a catholic saint or icon. Many Filipinos believe I am wrong (and they may be correct in that judgment) but I feel that as fellow Christians it is good to seek to find some way we can join on some level to demonstrate spiritual unity with other Christians. Joining a celebration, even in a small way, is one way to do that.
  2. Christians really should feel comfortable with Jewish holidays. After all, their holidays are part of our history as well. Yom Kippur, Rash Hashanah, Hanukkah, and so forth, are part of our faith history. But not only are there some Christians who believe we should not in anyway celebrate Jewish holidays (I believe I recall that the Western Church purposely moved Easter so that it would not line up with Passover— how strange.). On the other hand, I know Christians that like to suggest that as Christians we should only celebrate the Jewish holidays because they are “Biblical holy days.” Those special days, however, are special not because they are Biblical, but because of their role in remembrance of God’s faithfulness in history. But God’s faithfulness did not end in, oh say, 300 BC. It has been demonstrated more recently as well (including, but not limited to, Jesus birth, and resurrection). It is fine to celebrate Jewish holidays, but not them alone.
  3. Christians should at least be open to finding ways to celebrate other holidays of other faiths. This gets a bit more touchy, but it is not wrong to celebrate with Hindu friends a holiday with them…. or Muslims, Sikhs, Shintoists, or others. Some feel that that is inherently wrong. I would simply suggest that it may be possible to find ways to connect with those of other faiths, through celebration while holding true to one’s own faith. For example, Jesus did a miraculous sign at a Jewish wedding. But could he have done it at a non-Jewish wedding? I would think so? What if it was a non-Jewish celebration of a different kind, could Jesus have joined it and performed a miracle then also? I think it is possible. In this area, I think it would be wise not to condemn. I know Christian missionaries who work with Muslims who join Ramadan, both in the fasting and the celebration of the end of fasting. They believe they connect with Muslims better through this.

Ultimately, like meet sacrificed to idols in the first century church, this a matter of personal discernment in Christian liberty. But I hope you will find ways to celebrate. Heaven will be full of celebration. May as well practice now.