Tag Archives: paganism

Question: Was the Resurrection of Jesus based on stories from Near Eastern mythologies?

The Easter Season may have passed, but “we are an Easter people.”  The Church calls us to make “Alleluia” our song and live out the Paschal mysteries everyday of our lives.

 

In that vein, let us examine an important Eastery point of discussion from Marcy:

“The story of the death and resurrection of the Sumerian goddess Inanna closely mirrors the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet predates his appearance by more than 3000 years. Discuss.”

 

This is a great point, leading to a fascinating discussion about a story which many people, Christian and non-Christian, have never even heard of.  Marcy has her finger on the pulse of an important debate in Christology, ongoing since the first Christmas. How can we believe the extraordinary Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is actually God incarnate?  

 

Non-Christians maintained in the first centuries of the Christian Era (as they do today) that Jesus was merely a man.  We see this throughout the Gospels. It was because the Jewish officials saw Jesus as merely a man that they had him crucified; a man, after all, should not claim to be God.  Ancient Roman historians, such as Tacitus, referred to Jesus of Nazareth as a man, a real historical figure, but not as a god (though other writers, like Pliny the Younger, note that Christians were worshiping Christ as God in Pliny’s day, before AD 112).  

 

Fast-forward to the Enlightenment, when thinkers held Reason up as an antidote to religious Faith.  Critics of Christianity began to propose that the story of Jesus was merely a rehashing of other ancient mythologies adopted by the earliest Christians.  Depending on which aspect of Christ’s biography these critics sought to explain or “correct,” Our Lord would be lumped together with mythical heroes born of young maidens, or magical healing gods, or, as in this blogpost, dying and rising gods (we see a similar version of this thought in writers like Joseph Campbell).  

 

The idea of a widespread “dying-and-rising god” myth, of which Christ was just one iteration, came from The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (first published in 1890).  Frazer pointed to several examples of gods that “died and rose from the dead,” including Osiris (Egyptian), Dumuzid/Tammuz (Sumerian), and Adonis (Greek).  Unfortunately for Frazer’s posterity, as more archaeological discoveries occurred throughout the twentieth century, more historical evidence mounted that Frazer was incorrect about every “dying and rising god” in his study.  In their respective myths, these gods either never really died, or they never really rose from the dead.

 

So in that light, let’s look at the story of Inanna (Ishtar in Assyrian mythology) and see if her story closely resembles that of the Resurrection.

Who is Inanna?

Inanna (Ishtar) with a servant, 3rd Century Ad.  By Jadd Haidar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61102115

 

The Sumerians were the first civilization to develop the art of writing.  They lived in Ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and had a complicated polytheistic mythology through which they worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Inanna was a Sumerian fertility goddess, and as such has more than her fair share of sexually explicit stories in Sumerian mythology (she’s the Sumerian equivalent of Aphrodite or Venus).  Men and women appealed to her to solve impotency problems and to win spouses; prostitutes made her their patroness, as they played an important role in fertility cults in the ancient world.  She was also a goddess who loved war, and was said to “feast” on battles (sex and violence meet again). She was associated with the planet Venus, with its appearance in the morning and the evening.  Archaeological evidence indicates that worship of Inanna began around 4000-3000 BC, and that her cult grew to prominence during the reign of Sargon the Great (around 2300 BC).

So far, nothing in Inanna’s story connects to that of Christ’s Resurrection.  She seems no different than other mythological fertility goddesses. Now let us examine the story to which Marcy refers, that of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, her “death,” and her “resurrection.”  Although there are two variations of this story, we’ll focus on the older and more detailed Sumerian version of The Descent of Inanna (called here Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World), which dates to between 1900 and 1600 BC.  

Here is THE story itself, the Akkadian version, on a clay tablet at the British Museum.  By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23281061

 

Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld

 

Inanna decides to travel into the Underworld to tell the queen of the Underworld, her sister Erec-ki-gala, that Erec-ki-gala’s mortal husband had died.  Inanna dresses herself attractively with symbols of her power and instructs her minister, Nincubura, what to do if she, Inanna, does not return from the Underworld in three days: appeal to the other gods, for Inanna would be dead and in need of resurrection.  

 

Inanna arrives alone at the gate to the Underworld and demands entrance.  Her sister allows her to enter, but sets a trap. As a result, Inanna is stripped of the symbols of her authority and judged by the Anunnaki, the seven judges of the Underworld.  

 

They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.

 

Thus her “death.”  Interesting that Inanna’s corpse is hung on a hook, and Christ is hung on a cross.  But there is more:

 

Three days pass, and Nincubura travels to the various gods, pleading for their help in saving Inanna.  The response of most is identical [to that of Inanna’s father?]:

 

My daughter craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. Inanna craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers which should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who, having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?

 

Only the god Enki is moved by Nincubura’s plea.  He creates and sends the gala-tura and the kur-jara (two “sexless” figures, as the Wikipedia article on all of this says) to get the corpse of Inanna from Erec-ki-gala.  They arrive at Erec-ki-gala’s throne, and receive the corpse as a gift. After the gala-tura and the kur-jara sprinkle Inanna’s corpse with life-giving water and a life-giving plant, Inanna revives and begins to rise from the Underworld to the realm of the gods.  The Anunnaki freak out, so to speak, because no one “has ascended unscathed from the underworld.”  

 

So Inanna, accompanied by the Anunnaki, travel to several people close to Inanna to select a substitute for her.  She does not allow any of them to be the substitute, however, for they show true devotion and sorrow at her “death.”  Eventually, they find Inanna’s husband Dumuzid, who is not mourning his wife (he’s dressed rather nicely and relaxing under a tree, with some versions of the story depicting him being waited on by slave girls).  So Inanna gives him to the Anunnaki as her substitute. Off he goes to the Underworld so she can survive. She cuts a deal with Erec-ki-gala so that she and her husband can see each other for half of the year.

 

Inanna and her husband.  Clearly they love each other deeply.   Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37691709

 

Thus the story of Inanna and her resurrection.

 

Inanna vs. Christ

 

Those familiar with Christ’s Resurrection accounts from the four canonical Gospels can already see there are some surface similarities between Inanna’s myth and the story of Christ.  Both figures were hung in their death: Inanna on the hook, Christ on the cross. Both figures were dead for “three days,” or at least returned to life on the third day. But the differences run deeper than the similarities.  Here are a few of them.

 

  • Inanna is a goddess, one among a pantheon of gods and goddesses, who seeks her own selfish wants and needs.  She was forced against her will to become a corpse as a punishment for offending her sister through her pride.  
    • Christianity is monotheistic, and the Son of God is both man and still completely God (see our recent reflections on the Nicene Creed).  His Incarnation occurred not as a punishment but as a willing sacrifice for what WE did (and continue) to do wrong.  In becoming incarnate the Son “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), not losing anything of His divinity, but in an act of supreme love and humility, Christ took upon Himself our humanity.  The Incarnation was an act of humility, the opposite of the pride displayed by Inanna.

 

  • Despite the fact that Inanna becomes a corpse, there is no indication in the story that she first becomes human.  She remains merely divine, not human, so one wonders if her “death” is even really death, in the sense that we think of death.  
    • Christ died like we die.  Even skeptics who deny Christ’s divinity argue that he did, indeed, die via crucifixion.  Likewise, the consistent teaching of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth really died a human death on the cross.  Without a real death, there can be no real resurrection. But as God, Jesus could not die; hence the need for Him to be both man and God.  

 

  • Inanna returns to life thanks to the efforts of her minister and the god Enki, who uses his own creations to bring about Inanna’s resurrection.  
    • Christian theology teaches that Christ rose from the dead not because God took pity on Him but because Christ HIMSELF is God, and therefore rose through His own power.  He did not rely on or need creation to bring about His resurrection. And there is no pantheon of other gods to restore Christ to life.

 

  • Inanna escapes the Underworld by using her husband as a replacement.  
    • One of the crucial aspects of Christ’s Paschal Mystery (His suffering, death, Resurrection, and Ascension) is that He underwent the fullest extent of human suffering (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc), died, returned to life, and went to Heaven body and soul (never to die again) all with full consent of His will.  No one takes His place; rather, he takes our place, taking upon Himself the guilt for our sins, even though He was innocent of any sin.

 

Clonmacnois Scripture Cross Jesus in the Tomb County Offaly Ireland

Christ being prepared for burial, from the High Cross at Clonmacnois in Ireland,

 

The story of Inanna is one of many pagan myths that share some similarities to the Resurrection of Christ.  While at first the idea that Christians merely borrowed pagan ideas to flesh out the story of Jesus seems appealing (to the critic) or troubling (to the believer), examining the literary evidence shows that the pagan stories are very different from the Christian one.  The key difference between these myths (stories) of paganism and the story of Christianity is, as C. S. Lewis noted, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”  To Lewis, “myth” does not mean something untrue, but something beyond mere reality.  Myth gets at the deeper truths beyond the facts, reaching realities the sciences cannot.  Most myths are not historically true, of course; they tell a story to educate and entertain.  Unlike the myths of paganism, Christianity myth, as Lewis notes, is one of historical reality.  

 

The Incarnation is a story which is simultaneously historically and spiritually true.  It teaches us truths greater than the greatest pagan myths, namely that God loves us so much that “He came down from Heaven.”  Perhaps one could say the pagan myths borrowed from Christianity, not in time, since the pagan stories usually came first in time, but in truth. Christianity, after all, teaches that Truth came and dwelt among us.  

 

It is a natural to see death as an evil and to desire life eternal.  The “dying-and-rising god” motif taps into that desire to conquer death.  Perhaps it is an inner remembrance of Eden, when we lived without fear of dying and walked with our God.  Under slavery to death, our salvation came not by some manipulative deity’s guile but by the sacrifice of the God who made us, and loves us, at our hands.  All of the “dying-and-rising god” myths, each grasping in shadows at this ultimate truth, find their answer on the cross, on the day that death was conquered not by a goddess who sends her husband to die in her place, but by Christ who laid down his life so His Bride, the Church, could live.
The stories of Inanna and other pagan mythological figures are shrouded in mystery.  No one believed figures like Inanna or Adonis were originally real, historical men and women.  They were gods outside of this mortal world. Christianity is different; ours is a religion deeply drawn from historical truths.  The Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus took place in a particular historical place at a particular historical time, and the records come from eyewitness accounts of the historical events, namely the four canonical Gospels.  

 

Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, c. 400.

 

Permit a quick equivocal example of what skeptics do in stating that Christians merely applied pagan myths to the life of Christ:  Mahatma Gandhi achieved great success in bringing about social change through peaceful, non-violent protests. The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. achieved the same.  Could we just say that followers of King merely took stories of Gandhi and, with the best intentions, applied them to their civil rights leader? Of course not, because there is a historical record of the words and actions of King written by those who lived with him, those who heard him speak, and those who saw him do his peaceful, non-violent deeds.  For his part, King was clear about Gandhi’s influence on his own protests.  If King was not so upfront, contemporaries of him could have easily remarked that his protests were merely the protest of Gandhi adapted to an American civil rights situation, instead of an India vs. British civil rights situation.  

 

Skeptics millenia from now might incorrectly claim King did not exist, or that his teachings and actions were exaggerated to mimic those of Gandhi, cashing in on the success of the Indian.  This sounds ridiculous today, but that is a similar objection to the story of Christ in light of pagan myths. Just as we should honor the memory of both King and Gandhi, so we should likewise honor Christ, who through His Resurrection demonstrated the most profound truth of history, that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

 

It is truly Good News, a better tale than even the most beautiful pagan dreams.  

 

 

For Further Reading (beyond the in-text links)

 

Olson, Carl E.  Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?: Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ignatius Press, 2016).  

 

Pitre, Brant.  The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016).

 

Broussard, Karlo.  “Why Jesus’ Resurrection Is Not Borrowed from Pagan Myths”

 

Mark, Joshua J.  “Inanna’s Descent: A Sumerian Tale of Injustice.”  Ancient History Encyclopedia, February 23, 2011.

 

Heffron, Yaǧmur.  “Inana/Ištar (goddess),” Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016

 

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I had originally written this reflection for publication in an online magazine, but I didn’t submit it in time.  So I’ll publish it here!

Happy Feast of the First Martyrs of Rome

On a late July night in AD 64, hidden in the imperial palace, Emperor Nero’s dark thoughts stirred.  A substantial portion of the great city of Rome lay under ashes.  Outrage spread throughout the streets of the empire’s capital.  Like any outraged populous, the people of Rome called for answers.  They needed answers.  For many, their lives seemed utterly ruined.  The emperor, that sick and twisted man who had murdered his wife and his mother, must be to blame.  So the rumbling crowds shouted.  Nero needed an answer for them, something that would divert their anger from him to someone, or some group, of no consequence.

Perhaps it was an aide to him who made the suggestion.  Perhaps he had heard tales of a strange group that had trickled out from Palestine, a group that adhered to strange rituals and bizarre teachings.  They were a relatively unpopular group, often at odds with the traditional Roman priests.  Perhaps reports came to Nero’s court that these new zealots had stirred up trouble in Greece a few years earlier.  The more the emperor thought on this, the more he knew he had his scapegoat.

He announced by imperial decree that this radical group was to blame for the fire of Rome.  The religion became illegal, and for the 250 years that spanned the fire of Rome in AD 64 and the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians throughout the empire lived and preached under that ban.  The hunt began, and it was not long before the first Christians appeared in a Roman court for that most persistent of crimes: faithfully following Jesus of Nazareth.

The feast of the First Martyrs of the Roman Church falls on June 30, the day after the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.  It is a fitting placement for such a feast, for if we include in the list of the earliest Roman martyrs those who died before Nero’s bloody suicide in AD 68, then tradition holds that both St. Peter and St. Paul fall into this category of First Roman Martyrs.  On the other hand, this feast celebrates the lesser known martyrs, those whose names or life stories are lost to history.

Their deaths, however, scar the period of the early Roman Empire and provide a blueprint for the persecution of Christians even in more recent years.  Imperial troops scoured the city for Christians.  Arrested Christians often confessed that they were Christian, and under torture often gave the names of other Christians.  The Roman writer Tacitus describes how “an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind” (Tacitus, Annals 15: 44).  Soon this multitude filled the prisons in Rome, and executions followed.

These executions, providing the martyrs with their crowns, stand in history as among the most appalling murders ever recorded.  Men, women, and children died in the circus on the Vatican Hill, near where St. Peter’s Basilica is today.  Some were killed by more traditional Roman methods of execution, such as beheading or crucifixion (St. Paul died through beheading; St. Peter died via crucifixion).  Others died in more diabolical ways.  Nero held grand parties in his private gardens.  There the attendees would see performances of horrific tales from Greco-Roman mythology, particularly ones where the tragic figure would perish at the end.  The part of the helpless victim fell to the Christian prisoners.  In similar fashion, guests of the emperor hunted game in the gardens, though in this scenario the game was a Christian dressed in animal skins.  Nero’s dogs attacked the caught Christian and killed him or her, as they might any wild animal.  The most horrific, however, came after the sun set.  Nero mounted his personal chariot and rode along the garden’s pathways, cheered on by the guests.  As he rode, servants lit torches along his route.  These torches, burning and spitting in the Roman night air, contained not mere pitch or oil, but rather helpless Christians, who being condemned to die, served as Nero’s “Roman candles.”  Many died in such horrible manners, shocking though they may be.  Though the death of Nero granted the Christians some respite from such tortures, it would not be long before another Roman emperor saw reason to wipe out Christians from the empire.  As French historian Henri Daniel-Rops puts it,

Between 64 and 314 every single day held for the faithful believer the ever-present threat of a frightful death: the period is divided fairly evenly into the years of active bloodshed and those of relative quiet.  And every so often, during those two hundred and fifty years of history, we shall hear that cry of distress and agony rising heavenwards again, just as it had risen from the gardens of the Vatican glade in Nero’s day.  But from the moment of the first tortures the faith had known how to transform that cry into a cry of hope.  (Daniel-Rops, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs, 159)

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How do these stories of men and women slain nearly 1950 years ago apply to us today?  Like in the days of Ancient Rome, Christians today face persecution.  While many are not called to martyrdom, as the Christians under Nero were, we are all prepared for it.  By our baptism we are brought into new life in Christ, and by living in Christ, we also share in His death and Resurrection.  We are all called to suffer for the sake of the Name, even if it isn’t to the death.  We are all called to sacrifice our lives for the glory of God.  No matter our vocation, we are called to give up what we once were and embrace a radical new way of living.  This, then, is the ultimate lesson from these earliest martyrs of the Church, the same proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council: the Universal Call to Holiness.  Only when we embrace this call can we stand with the martyrs of the early Roman Church and worship the Triune God for all eternity.

For Further Reading:

Henri Daniel-Rops.  The Church of Apostles and Martyrs

Warren H. Carroll.  A History of Christendom.  Volume 1.  The Founding of Christendom.

Reflection: First Martyrs of Rome

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Celebrating ‘All Hallows Eve’/ ‘Feast of All Saints’ in a Pre-Christian West

A similar, though slightly different, approach to the same question we examined in our most recent post. Happy Halloween and Happy All Saints Day!

Death is a fact of life. When St. Francis of Assisi lay dying he said, “Welcome, Sister Death”. Tomorrow is Halloween – when we recognise that death is another creaturely thing in a world that will one day pass away. “I believe…in the communion of saints,” we say every Sunday in the Creed. The following day, the Feast of All Saints, is our family Feast day when we honour all those who have died, marked with the sign of Faith, and gone on before us to be with the Lord.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

The term “Halloween” comes from “All Hallows Eve”, the Christian Vigil of the celebration of the Christian Feast of “All Saints”. I contend that what it is becoming, with its undue influence on goblins, ghosts and the demonic, simply reflects the waning influence of the Christian vision in the West. It also presents an opportunity for Catholic Christians to…

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Question: Can Catholics celebrate Halloween?

Kristy, who writes at Granola Vogue, asked a question (and to emphasize just how BEHIND I am, I had joked with her that I hopefully wouldn’t be writing about it around Halloween. . . ) about everybody’s favorite candy-giving, creepy movie watching, totally spiritual holiday: “I read your latest post on Christmas [sorry to interrupt again, but this kinda shows just how old this question was] so I was wondering where does the Catholic Church stand on celebrating Halloween? Where does it fit it, if at all into their beliefs?”

A fine question, Kristy.  Let’s look at the history of Halloween first, compare its historical celebrations to today’s, and see what Catholics say about it.

Halloween got its start as a religious feast.  It is the day before All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest feasts of the year, when the Catholic Church celebrates all of the saints in Heaven, especially those who have not been declared a saint by the Church (remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint; she declares that that person is a saint).  The word “Halloween” is adapted from its proper, liturgical title: “All Hallows’ Eve.”  “Hallows” is an older English word that we still use in some contexts (for example, in the “Our Father” we say in the first line “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”).  The word “hallow” means “holy,” and thus “All Hallows’ Eve” celebrates the eve (evening) before the feast of All Saints (the holy ones of God).  The words combine to make Halloween.

The feast of All Saints’ Day wasn’t established in the Church calenders until 615, when Pope Boniface IV established the Feast of All Martyrs to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon in Rome into the Church of “St. Mary of the Martyrs” (“Santa Maria dei Martiri”).  There had been earlier celebrations commemorating the Church’s martyrs, but this was the first time it was made official by the Pope (it was celebrated on May 13).  This feast was later turned into the Feast of All Saints by Pope Gregory IV in 840 and moved to November 1 in 844 by that same pontiff.  Several commentators note that the establishment of both the feast in honor of All Martyrs and the feast in honor of All Saints marked an attempt to turn a sometimes pagan Europe towards God, baptizing the day in honor of the saints, rather than towards pagan gods.  To highlight the importance of the feast, Pope Sixtus IV made the feast a holy day of obligation in 1484, meaning all Catholics were to attend Mass that day.  Pope Sixtus also established a vigil feast for this major feast day (what is now called Halloween) as well as an octave to extend the feast’s celebration.  However, the octave and the liturgies attached to the eve of All Saints were removed before the mid-1950s.

(Above: Raphael’s “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” aka, What they do in Heaven)

All Souls’ Day (November 2) has a much shorter history.  Since the beginning of the Church (and before, as noted in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), the faithful have offered prayers for the dead, so that they might be freed from the stain of sin and brought into paradise.  The feast of All Souls’ Day grew out of this practice, first in local monasteries as a way to pray for those monks and loved ones who had died (particularly from the 6th through 11th Centuries), then in the major cities (Liege by 1008, Milan by 1125), and eventually to the whole world.  Pope Sylvester II recommended the feast for the Universal Church (but did not require the feast be added to the universal Church calender) in the 11th century, and as is often the case in matters liturgical, once the feast gained the support of the Pope, it spread throughout Europe.  It wasn’t until very recently (1915, under Pope Benedict XV), however, that the feast became an official one on the universal Church calendar (and a special exemption from the two-Masses-per-day rule was given to priests).

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass freeing souls from purgatory

(Above: What happens during a Requiem Mass)

So that’s a quick summary of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and the creation of Halloween as a liturgical celebration.  Halloween is, as you can see, at its roots a Catholic celebration: remembering the saints who dwell with God in Heaven and the departed who left this world in need of our prayers.  In that way, it is very Catholic to celebrate Halloween.

But what about Halloween today?  Where did we get all the holiday stuff, the ghosts, the monsters, the jack-o-lanterns, etc.?  Is the Church ok with all of that?

First, the party stuff.

The connection with All Souls’ Day reveals right away the emphasis on ghosts and things that go bump in the night.  Ghosts are often connected with souls from Purgatory who cannot find rest.  A church in Rome contains relics of visitors from Purgatory (these and other ghost-like visitations were the subject of a recent book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory), emphasizing the need for prayers for the faithfully departed, especially those who have no one to pray for them.  The accounts attached to those relics are real ghost stories.  It is little wonder, then, that ghosts and other denizens of the night are associated with the two feast days of the Church which focus on the afterlife, not on the lives of heroic men and women but on what happens to us when we die.

Many of the familiar Halloween features stem from pagan European practices.  The most commonly noted is a festival in Celtic areas (Ireland, England, Scotland, etc.) prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries dedicated to Samhain, their god of death.  This feast marked the Celtic New Year.  Rituals included offering burnt sacrifices in huge bonfires and wearing animal skins as costumes.  The hope was that these would keep the god at bay, as well as protect the people of the villages from the evil spirits released into the world by Samhain.  From these Celtic areas, we also find familiar rituals which may be the ancestors of our Halloween celebrations.  In Ireland people joined a parade led by a druidic priest in an animal mask who went from house to house begging for food in the name of another god, Muck Olla (those who would give food were blessed, while those who didn’t were cursed).  The Irish also started carving turnips for the feast.  Scottish peasants wandered the fields at night with torches to keep evil spirits at bay.  When Roman legions conquered the Celtic regions, their Latin customs of autumnal harvest rituals mixed with the Celtic festival.  Christian missionaries attempted to baptize the festivities (as they did with festivals near Christmastime), resulting in a strong emphasis in Celtic Christianity on death and physical mortification.

Similar rituals arose in Frankish and Germanic Christian kingdoms.  French Catholics in particular had a festival known as “Dance Macabre” in honor of departed souls, often dressing in costumes to represent people throughout their life.  French monks in the monasteries in Cluny developed devotions in honor of the souls in Purgatory, offering special Masses for the dead (the Masses of the Clunaic monks inspired Pope Sylvester II, who himself was French, to spread the celebration of Mass for the Dead).  These rites and rituals became popular among the lay faithful, and soon became part of Christian culture.

Our modern understanding of Halloween came about when all of these features mixed together in America, the world’s cultural melting pot.  French, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants lived near each other, intermarried, and formed a new culture.  The Irish tradition of carving turnips and asking for food became our tradition of carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating.  The French devotion to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and their costume-filled “Dance Macabre” mixed with Celtic fears of ghosts and goblins.  Other cultures mixed and mingled, and eventually our modern holiday of Halloween formed.

This leaves the biggest question of them all: can a Catholic celebrate Halloween?  I would say yes, provided they avoid the more disturbing facets that have slithered into the holiday’s celebration in recent decades.  The focus of the holiday turned from remembering the dead, praying for them, and invoking the saints, to a disturbing obsession with evil.  This evil appears in various forms, and its not always as obvious as the evil in a horror movie.  Many children (and those who wish they were children) dress in costumes for trick-or-treating.  Those costumes speak volumes.  A cute costume might draws “awwws” and “how sweet.”  Gory costumes draw the opposite reaction.  Girls dressed in overtly sexual costumes draw a very disturbing reaction.  Costumes of children dressed as witches and zombies seem more appropriate.  Mix this with attempts by modern witches and druids to claim Halloween as their holy day and the water gets murky.  The Christian origins of the holiday fade into obscurity.

Christians are divided into four groups regarding Halloween.  One group just doesn’t celebrate it, not out of any dislike but simply because they don’t want to.  Another wants nothing to do with it, some because of its connection to pre-Christian Europe, some because of how disturbing some of the celebrations of Halloween have become.  A third group, on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the holiday like anyone else, without any concern over the controversies mentioned above.  The fourth group, which I lean towards, seeks to embrace what is properly Christian, reclaiming, so to speak, Halloween.  Rather than wandering the streets dressed as monsters, children trick-or-treat dressed as saints or religious figures.  Others dress in some heroic costume (knights, soldiers, policemen, etc).  Other costumes work too (I was a shark when I was very young!) and there is room for some monstrosities, gentle ghosts and lovable witches.  However, it is not my place to say in definite terms “this is wrong” or “the parent who allows this or that costume is a bad, sinful parent.”  These, of course, are mere suggestions.

There is a place for terror during Halloween, for it reminds us of the end of our lives.  Halloween brings to our attention a terrifying reality: we will all die.  Even those who emphasize the spiritual aspect of the holiday know that this reality is at the root of the celebration.  The saints, though heroic and in Heaven, had to die to reach their triumphant state.  The souls in Purgatory likewise had to die to reach their state of purification.  Those in Hell suffer the worst fate, for in their death they have separated themselves from God.  It is of this reality that Halloween seeks to remind us.  Horror has its place in reminding us.  Perhaps it is the easiest way to shock us into drawing back to God.

No matter the costume or the celebration, this main focus of Halloween should be maintained.  We should recall those who have gone before us, either celebrating in the triumph of the saints or pray for those who still journey through Purgatory.  Some suggested practices help refocus our attention during the holiday.  Reflections on the saints form a delightful part of the celebration. Readings from the lives of the saints or their writings might help to remind Christians young and old of the great patrimony of our spiritual siblings in Heaven.  In this way, a new generation of Christians can reorient themselves towards Christ through His saints.

For Further Reading (note: most of these websites are articles discussing the history of Halloween in more detail):

http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/hallween.htm

http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost12aa.html#1a

http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Oct2001/Family.asp

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/months/10_2.cfm

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6210

http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/October-2012/Culture–Time-for-Catholics-to-Embrace-Halloween.aspx

http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/784/Truth_about_Halloween.html

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/all-hallows-eve-or-halloween

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Saints’ Day

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315b.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Souls’ Day

Van Den Aardweg, Gerard J. M.  Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory.  Rockville, IL: TAN Books, 2009.

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Reflection: Year of Faith – I Believe in God

“I believe in God”

Thus opens one of the oldest prayers in the Christian Tradition: the Apostles’ Creed.  Tradition states that the prayer dates back to the time of the Apostles, if not to the Apostles themselves.  “I believe in God.”  That’s how the prayer begins.  All of our actions, all of our daily lives, everything we think, do, say, everything about us centers on that one phrase, that one belief: there is a God.  The more specific phrase “I believe in one God” comes from the later Nicene Creed, formulated from the First Council of Nicea, held in 325.  This emphasis on there being only one God stems from the controversies that led up to the Council of Nicea.  The heretic Arius had denied the divinity of Christ, saying that to say Christ was divine would imply that there were two gods, not one.  The Council Fathers denied such a claim; hence the emphasis of there being one God.

Early on in Christian history, the believers in Christ had to express their belief in one God.  One could see the possible confusion.  Was there only one God?  The pagans in Greco-Roman culture seemed to say otherwise.  Was Jesus really God, and if so, why not someone else?  These were issues that the earliest Christians, those who followed the Apostles, had to answer.  One sees this in St. Paul’s trip to Athens (Acts 17:16–34).  Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers about the “Unknown God,” to whom the Athenians had an altar in the Areopagus.  This was the one true God, Paul preached.  He was unsuccessful, for the most part: “When they [the philosophers] heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time’” (Acts 17:32).  Paul wasn’t entirely successful, but we can see in this episode the early conflict between paganism and Christian monotheism.  This conflict predated Christianity, of course, for the Jews faced a similar conflict with their monotheism, and since the Christian is the spiritual heir of the Jew, he must expect the same conflicts.

If only people today were as polite as the Athenians were to St. Paul.

Today there is a renewed atheism and a renewed paganism.  The agnosticism of today’s world spits in the face of the ancient Greeks and Romans because at least the pagans believed in something, even if it was multiple gods or the spirits of nature.  Even some sort of bizarre mythology where Zeus or whoever had affairs with humans was a step above new atheists and agnostics because at least the pagans knew there was something beyond them, some spiritual realm.  Today’s “New Atheists” don’t believe in anything.  Today we must turn to basic proofs for God’s existence, renewing our basic belief in one God.

Now, fortunately for those speaking with someone who dismisses the Bible as a collection of myths and superstitious stories written down over the centuries, one can prove that God exists using logic, reason, and the natural world, without having recourse to the Scriptures.  St. Thomas Aquinas did just that, borrowing from the metaphysics of Aristotle.  He presents five classic arguments for the existence of God: from Motion, from Efficient Causality, from Necessity, from Perfection, and from Governance.  Since the gist of the arguments all boils down to the same point, I will focus on the first argument, based on Motion.

By Motion, St. Thomas is referring to the tendency of things in creation to go from a state of potency (able to do/be something) to actuality (being/doing something) and then back to potency.  This process occurs throughout creation, and can be seen in all things, living or non-living.  However, as both Thomas and Aristotle note, something cannot be potentially and actually the same thing.  A log cannot be potentially on fire and on fire at the same time.  It is either one or the other.  Things move from one state to another, and in order for a thing to move from potency to actuality, some other force must act upon it (the log doesn’t spontaneously combust; a pyromaniac lights it on fire).  Tracing the series of movements, one ultimately reaches an Unmoved Mover, a thing which is pure Act.  This must be the case, since if there was any potency in this Unmoved Mover, it would not be able to have any actuality in it, since in order for it to move from potency to actuality, an external force must affect it.  This Unmoved Mover is pure Act, and is what people commonly call God.

This proof does not provide a perfect description of God; the other four proofs expand our understanding of God.  The proof from Causality follows the same process as that from Motion, only this second proof focuses on how one cause leads to an effect; however, following the links of causes back to the beginning of time, one must conclude there is an Uncaused Cause, that is, God.

By Necessity, St. Thomas brings the issue of being into the discussion of God.  All things in the universe exist, but they don’t have to.  Things come into existence and they go out of existence, all without the universe collapsing.  Things in the universe share in existence.  They are not existence itself; their essence is something particular to them, but their essence is not existence.  They had to have gotten their existence, their being, from some other source.  There must be something beyond everything else, something which has as its essence existence, which is in its nature Existence itself.  That would be God.

The other two proofs are very simple.  St. Thomas uses Perfection to prove that, because we know something is better than another, there must be a perfect Entity that transcends all other things.  Our understanding of perfection must stem from a perfect source.  That’s God.  At the same time, the argument from Governance states that the order in the universe points to the fact that the universe could not have come to being by accident.  There must have been a great mind behind the universe; that Mind is God.

So God exists.  But what about the specific nature of the first line of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God.”  How do we know Hindus aren’t correct?  How do we know there are not multiple gods out there, or that we all become gods upon our death?  Let us look back at the argument from philosophy just discussed.  You cannot have multiple first causes, multiple sources of being.  You just can’t.  Try to think of a universe with two infinite, perfect sources of all existence.  Two perfect beings would be identical, and there cannot be two purely identical beings; they would be the same being.  It doesn’t make sense to have more than one god.  If it doesn’t make sense to have two gods, it doesn’t make sense to have a whole pantheon, nor to have everything be “God” as found in pantheism.

One God.  Basta, as the Italians say.  Enough.

But don’t Christians say there are three persons in God?  Doesn’t that mean we think there are three gods?

It’s hard to discuss the Trinity.  It’s one of those mysteries of Faith that truly transcends full comprehension.  God’s like that.  The Trinity is not one of the truths of the Faith that is knowable by Reason alone.  We need Faith in order to know God fully, and by knowing God through Faith, we are able to come into close communion with Him.

And we will focus on the Trinity in the next post in this series.

For further reading/listening:

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Catholic Encyclopedia, “God” – Note: This provides links to other articles about God in the Encyclopedia.

Sabatino Carnazzo, “Catechism 102: The Creed”

William Saunders, “Alpha & Omega: God the Father, Creator of the World”

Paul Scalia, “Credo: I Believe in One God”

Robert Barron, et. al, “Faith Seeks Understanding Pt.1: What Is God?” – This is part 1 of a series discussing God, the Trinity, and other aspects of the Faith.  There are links to other parts of the series from this video.

Robert Baron, Catholicism, Episode 3: “THAT THAN WHICH NOTHING GREATER CAN BE THOUGHT – THE INEFFABLE MYSTERY OF GOD” – An episode from the popular series about Catholicism.  See a clip from the episode here.

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