Saturday, November 2, 2013

Days of the Dead

Days of the Dead
1 Samuel: 28:3-25 – Saul and the Witch of Endor

All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls constitute what appears to have evolved as a three day observance in the fall – specifically Oct 31, Nov 1 & 2. All Saints, or All Hallows day, constitutes a day to stop and remember those who have gone before and have one way or another hallowed life – people we now refer to as saints but who often were anything but. Nonetheless they are people who remind us what things are most important in this life. And All Souls, as it sounds, is a day to remember all those who have gone before us who have contributed one way or another to the lives we live today. All Hallows Eve, now Halloween, began as an evening vigil before the observance of the following two days.

This tri-partite celebration falls at a time of year in the Northern hemisphere when leaves are falling, the sun is doing its disappearing act, days are darker in the morning and the evening, the weather is cooler, frost begins to kill off less hardy plants and flowers – a sort of natural winding down to the “death” of winter. So our minds naturally tend to recall those who have passed before us – which takes one to think of cemeteries and columbariums, spirits, ghosts and pretty soon one also finds oneself thinking about all those creatures that inhabit the shadow worlds of darkness – hobgoblins, devils, and things that go bump in the night!

As I was carving the traditional jack-o-lanterns, first emptying out all the “guts” of the pumpkin, then carving eyes, nose, mouth in either friendly or scary stylings, two verses of the new testament came to mind. First Paul in Philippians, when he says that Christ did not take equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the life of a servant; and the first verses of John which equate the Word, the logos, Jesus, with God and with that first Light that burst upon the world in Genesis 1 or The Big Bang (take your pick) – the light which is the light of the world. The pumpkin is emptied and then filled with light to shine in the darkness – a somewhat appropriate reminder of Christ after all is the Jack-O-Lantern, sentinel of the night as little ghosties and beasties roam the streets looking for a treat as we collectively thumb our nose at death and all its acolytes.

Then I recalled the days of my childhood, when on Saturday evening my father would go to the El Station in Oak Park to buy the first edition of the Sunday papers – all four Chicago Daily Papers: The Sun, the Tribune, the Daily News and the American. I would wake up Sunday morning to find the color comics from all four papers at the foot of my bed and would gleefully and diligently read them all before getting up and getting ready to go to church.

On this Halloween weekend the Tribune would always have a special banner cartoon depicting a harvest moon and haystack scene. Just below it would be Peanuts with Linus van Pelt sitting in the pumpkin patch with a sign, “Welcome Great Pumpkin,” as he waited for the Great Pumpkin’s arrival – or at least a sign. And every year he was disappointed.

All of which eventually turns my mind to this story about King Saul and the Witch of Endor. I believe it is the only Bible story to feature both a witch and a ghost – the ghost of the boy prophet Samuel. Saul, like Linus, is looking for a sign – a sign or a word from God – as he faces a hostile Philistine army about to attack. He has been praying to God but gets no answer. He asks his men to find someone who can conjure dead spirits. They remind him that as King he has outlawed any and all such people from practicing their “trade.” He insists he needs to find someone and finally they say, “Well there are reports of a witch at Endor.” Disguised as not-the-king, off they go to Endor.

Saul-disguised asks for a séance. The Witch wisely replies, “Have you not heard? Saul has outlawed such things!” He says, “Don’t worry, he won’t find out – I won’t turn you in.” Still hesitant she asks who in fact he needs to speak to. “Samuel.”  So up rises Samuel from the dead – at which point the Witch realizes this IS Saul in her house. “You tricked me – oh, woe is me!” “Don’t worry,” he says, “all shall be well.”

Not exactly. Samuel is not happy to return only to find it is Saul who has awakened him from his eternal rest. “What do you want from me?”

Saul explains that God is not answering his prayers, the Philistines are on the horizon, can’t you get God to give me some sort of an answer, some sort of sign? Samuel replies in effect, You never listened to God before why should he listen to you now. Things look bad and guess what? They are!

Samuel leaves, and Saul falls over, we are told, like a dead tree. At this point the Witch of Endor springs into action. She kills the fatted-calf, makes some bread and tries to get Saul to eat. He has not eaten all day and is refusing to eat now. He is in total despair. Yet, she convinces him to rest and have a good hot meal before going on. She cares for him and gives him strength to face his fears head-on.

One take away from this odd episode in the longer story of the life of faith is that often, like Linus and Saul we look for a sign – some assurance that there is some power greater than our selves, be it God, be it the Great Pumpkin, be it the Big Bang. But sometimes we are looking for the wrong thing, or asking the wrong questions, or seeking the wrong answer.

Note how Saul gets what he needs, not what he wants. In the peculiar calculus that is the Bible, he meets the face, heart and hands of God in the very person he has banished from his kingdom – a witch. He wants a sign from God and it is given – for what he needs at that moment is someone who cares for him, nurtures him, and strengthens him.  We often find what we need is not what we seek, and just as often what we need comes from places and persons we have written off long ago.

All Hallows Eve. Filled with lessons not too late for the learning, if only we will open ourselves to what the Witch of Endor and all her colleagues really have to offer us – a vision of how what we really need is someone who cares – someone who reflects the light that shines in the darkness – light which the darkness has not overcome. Amen.

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