Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The flawed ikonography of Hallowe'en

The doorbell's just rung. A vampire, two sheet-ghosts and Lucifer himself have come to demand sweets. Quite why supernatural entities drawn from "O Whistle and I'll come to you, My Lad", a mythological conflation of tuberculosis and a warning against sexual promiscuity, and a personification of the infernal angelic being largely based on the Greek deity Pan have to do with a Christian festival, perhaps needs some explanation.

The Christian is always looking to the unseen, much to the scorn of the materialist empiricism of the current age. God, being supremely other, is clearly not a being that can ever be fully grasped by the mental processes of His Creation. Thus the Christian has to learn to reach something beyond the senses. We are fortunate that we have the saints to help draw us out of ourselves and point to the Divine.

The Christian world is full of ikonography, whether this be in the form of literal ikons written by experienced ikonographers, through the ikon of the sacred symbol or sacred action, the ikonography within Sacrament, the bishop and priest as ikon of Christ as servant and High Priest, or through the ikonographic presence of the saints. All ikons point to God. Ikons of the Lord Jesus, point not only to His humanity but to His Divinity. Ikons of Our Lady always have a hand pointing to her Son. The ikons of the saints have their focus away from them and to the Creator. They shine with the light of Tabor - the light that only comes from God. It is the job of the ikon to act as a window, albeit a dark glass, into the world of the unseeable.

Yet what happens when one removes or displaces God from the ikon?

Well, if one removes God from an ikon, then all that is left is a picture on wood, a person in funny robes, a wafer and a bit of wine. Just matter, empty and meaningless!

If one displaces God, then one ends up with some sense of the beyond but without God the result is confused conflations of legends and myths and distortions of reality. This makes things a little more interesting and also very dangerous.

Superstition arises from the displacement of God from an Ikon, or at least a misunderstanding of who He is. What we may know about God can only truly arise from the via negativa or from analogy and the Christian life is lived in the search for God, piecing together that which we know of Him as He is revealed in the ikonography of life. However, it is when we make false interpretations that our superstitions can arise. If we fail to say our prayers one night, will we have bad luck the next day?
If we pray to St Anthony, will our lost credit card turn up?

In "Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad",  Professor Parkin gives his theory for the superstition of whistling for the wind:
 'Now, as to whistling for the wind, let me give you my theory about it. The laws which govern winds are really not at all perfectly known - to fisher-folk and such, of course, not known at all. A man or woman of eccentric habits, perhaps, or a stranger, is seen repeatedly on the beach at some unusual hour, and is heard whistling. Soon afterwards a violent wind rises; a man who could read the sky perfectly or who possessed a barometer could have foretold that it would. The simple people of a fishing-village have no barometers, and only a few rough rules for prophesying weather. What more natural than that the eccentric personage I postulated should be regarded as having raised the wind, or that he or she should clutch eagerly at the reputation of being able to do so? Now, take last night's wind: as it happens, I myself was whistling. I blew a whistle twice, and the wind seemed to come absolutely in answer to my call. If anyone had seen me - '
He illustrates the development of superstition as a confusion of correlation with cause, or in this case coincidence with cause. Yet, any event that occurs must correlate with its cause, so how does one demonstrate the cause of an effect is more than just correlation. Clearly one can only do so by trying to understand the relationship between the cause and the effect? Professor Parkin is confronted quite terrifyingly with the consequence of the blowing of the whistle.

Hallowe'en itself is an ikon which, to modern society, has had the image of God displaced. In a laregly more materialistic world, Hallowe'en seems to serve as lip-service to the existence of the supernatural. People remember the great old ghost stories and romanticise for a night or two about how brilliant it would be if they were actually true, gaining a shiver and a thrill in the process before returning to the material world where the dead stay dead.

This is so far removed from the Christian Hallowe'en which actually begins the feast of All Saints. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of us being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In the Revelation to St John the Divine, there is the great multitude of saints and martyrs all crying out the praises to God, but further they seek to support us in our race to the Divine Presence. The prayers of the saints ascend to God in the heavenly thuribles. If one is truly thinking about what it means to be one of the Hallows, then one cannot get away from their tendency to point away from themselves to God Himself. The Angels too, who can be mistaken for God (as St John discovers when he tries to worship an angel in the Revelation) if they are truly the servants of God will point only to God. It is a sure sign of an agent of the infernal if that angel points to itself.

The Devil is not a pan-lookalike. He is far more subtle than that, but rather wants people to think of him as being the caricature that knocked at the door this evening so as to throw the naive off the scent of his wicked work. The only tool in his arsenal is lies which he is adept at wrapping neatly into a sizable packet of truth. Following the the true ikons of Hallowe'en will allow us to remain on the path to God by helping us spot the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Our relationship with God, which will be both personal as well as corporate within the Church, will develop more by ensuring that we use the ikons that He has set in the world around us. Christian festivals are Christian in their intent and meant for no other purpose.

Where is God in Hallowe'en?

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