Caring for the Old Woman of Samhain: A Riff on Matthew 22:34-46

By Jim Perkinson, a sermon (10.29.17) for a turning Season 

In the Lectionary gospel for the day, the stakes are high. Jesus has just side-swiped the annual Passover parade, organized an Occupy-takeover of the Temple the next day, held a teach-in naming the site “Thug Central,” “Den of Robbers,” opened the space to the blind, the lame and children, gone underground in Bethany overnight, come back up to the central shrine, which is also the national bank, begun his word-joust-defense of his action—and the clock is ticking.   The contract has been out on his life ever since the early days of his community organizing in Galilee where he led his inner circle in a civil disobedience action, poaching wheat from fields on the Sabbath.

The scribal defenders of the powers-that-be try to trap him. He pirouettes on the high wire of their interrogation—naming love of neighbor as equivalent to love of God. Then goes hip-hop hard on their rear ends with a diss-rhyme take-down of their golden boy patron David! How is it that that vaunted murderer-adulterer-king calls his own great-great-great-great-great-great (etc.) grandson, “Lord”?

The question out-Pharisees the Pharisees, battle-axes their arrogance with an unanswerable question: “If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”

And the tone is set for our day, today. We sneak up on an ancient tradition, modern denizens of a disenchanted society, devoid of a sense of the wild mystique of nature, of night, of time. We call the hour Halloween, don costume, feign goblins and ghosts, and even used to honor tricks until Big Agriculture got in the mix and convinced us to settle for sweets. So now we mumble in church about All Saints, but really celebrate sugar. And our own diabetic demise inside a candy bar!

But the issue is ancestry. And Jesus threw down the conundrum precisely in the face of those coming to string him up.   More is present when he is hollering his whoop than just an individual loop of voice. Passover was a spring rite—one of those seasonal fests when weather breaks and different natural powers twerk and grind on each other and time thins out and ancestors appear and sons- and daughters-to-come leer in from the future.

David channels the possibility in his day, seeing down a long corridor of history to his own distant offspring—speaking to that seed like it predates him. But the issue is crucial not just because it anticipates Jesus. The significance is prodigious. We have created a profound sickness in our modern conceit that we are just “individuals,” at sea before a storm called Trump with only ourselves to rely upon.

There is a reason the Spirit is called the Holy Ghost and in the bible there is more than just one of them. Maybe nine-tenths of spirituality is a matter of ancestry—of knowing where you come from and who you can call upon.

Witness Jesus a bit before his Temple throw-down that was the Lectionary selection for today. Once he sets his face like flint to spit hard words of true colors in the face of the Powers in Jerusalem, but before he sets out from Galilee hills, he takes his inner-most threesome of Peter, James and John on Sabbath retreat up the mountain that we now call Transfiguration. There in storm-cloud-huddle before the big play, he seeks counsel of two oldster-activists of his cultural and family tree. Moses and Elijah appear. And it is no surprise that these two apparitions, “haints,” as black folk might say, “of the highest order,” both exited their show on the other side of the river. They both went skyward (whether dead or alive, no one knows) east of the Jordan. Outside the Promised Land, in terrain of the wild.

And here the haunting gets thick. There is nothing for it but to enter the cloud, as the letter of Hebrews says, embrace the murk of witnesses, where we see dimly, hear faintly, catch sense of a mountain height, a blazing fire, an angel choir of deep chanting voices. The early church growing out of the soils and waters of Galilee, understood much better than we do. Every humble gathering around loaf and wine—often enough at the headstone of a major martyr in a catacomb graveyard—convened way more than just the tiny community of widowed dress-makers and orphaned kids and poor tradesmen and farmers and fisherfolk. All of the saints, all the ghosts of ancestors past, all the characters and grizzled grandpas and wizened grandmas and beloved friends and long lost lovers from the deep past and the barely remembered and the never known and vast hordes of strugglers and survivors and dreamers and laughers and stragglers and schemers and just plain ordinary extraordinary human beings that pre-date all of us in our gene-lines, were also there, looking in, longing over that little community that it would simply “be” in the full flush of its dignity and marvelous creatureliness. Yes, the early church had an instinct for such.

But what I am talking about goes behind even that—to what our indigenous ancestry knew. The Celts called it Samhain, November 1, the moment when summer yielded to winter, house fires were extinguished and re-kindled from a common bonfire, the living community turned its face toward the dead, the gossamer veil between this world and the Other World thinned out and all kinds of traffic crossed the border both ways. Most indigenous cultures had ways of celebrating such a shift—usually tied in with seasons and weather—and gave it attention in terms of a ritual bridge. Mexican folk go spend the night at ancestor graves, serving tequila and food, lighting the entire cemetery with candles like some great party from the past suddenly alive and well in the deep mystery of midnight. Dia de los muertos, they name it. African-heritage folk splice Eshu and Gede into Carnival and second-line funeral down in New Orleans and dance the dead into new bodies.

But Halloween in the northern cold of a place like Detroit is especially beholden to the Irish and the Aos Síd, the Little People of Faery repute, who live underground but come out in moments of crisis to visit and trick and bless. The Wee Folk may actually refer to older indigenous communities in Ireland and Scotland who were oppressed and “diminished,” forced to go into hiding in the mountains, or nearly killed off, when waves of colonizers rolled in. But they are not gone, just like the ancestors of present day Ojibwa and Odawa and Potawatomi people are not gone from the Great Lakes Basin. Samhain—Halloween—is a way of creating a little tent in time where we say:

I remember you. I see you. I need you. I honor you. I feed you with my own beauty and eloquence and food and drink. I weep in memory of you. I dance in celebration of you. I grieve over what happened to you!

If we had time, I could walk us through the way this works in the biblical tradition, where the blood of ancient nomad Abel, killed by farmer Cain, is swallowed by the soil and then that grief-racked soil speaks! Cries out! And presides over the entire tradition! Jesus names Abel the primal ancestor of the prophetic line he rides in. The author of Hebrews, at the end of his letter, looking to the far horizon of history, says, that the blood of Abel is “speaking still.” Abel is effectively the Ghost or Haint that haunts the biblical tradition from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation. A Holy Ghost, if you want.

Now I am as much a novice at this way of handling life as any of us. Having to learn how to honor ancestors all over again, because my people forgot—and we now live in a death-phobic and ancestor-anemic culture. “Our ancestors” is a much bigger reality than just our human line. It includes everything predating us—plants, animals, earth, water, even weather and seasons!

So two last stories coming from the ancient Halloween tradition when it was still Celtic Samhain. November 1 celebrated a hand-off. Bridget, Fair Goddess of Summer, gave all of her bounty and fruits and sunshine to Cailleach, the Old Lady of Winter (often enough thought of, and respected, as a “hag”) to tide her through the cold, while She incubated everything back to life again in the dark under the vast clear expanse of a billion galaxies of stars and the under the soil as seeds, churning and cooking and mysteriously turning “up” toward the sun, to be reborn as young in the spring. On the west coast of Scotland, Samhain is celebrated over three days and the story is that during those three days, Cailleach ushers in winter by washing Her plaid (Her bright, multi-colored Tartan) in the Gulf of Corryvreckan (“cauldron of the plaid”). And when She is finished, the plaid is pure white and snow covers the land.

So the hint is human beings are part of the seasons. On Samhain, you are wearing all these colors—in Scotland, bright plaid Tartans—because you are like the trees and bushes and grasses, fiercely decked out and parading in the luster and glory of fall and grief over the waning sun, and giving that to winter. And She does Her thing with it and it comes out all white as snow until Imbolc on February 1 and the first hint of spring, or Easter and the equinox, or even Beltane’s Mayday fest, and then humans deck out in white and are fiercely honoring of the winter’s passing. It is all about fiercely participating in all of it! According to Tzutujil-Mayan-trained teacher Martín Prechtel—as indeed many friends of mine in inner city Detroit—style is finally all we have. We are here for the blink of an eye, and at the end of the day, what matters, is the kind of beauty we leave on deposit with the world, the ferocity of our personal tattoo on history’s memory. Our responsibility is to honor the grand magnificence of the created order by living up to its brilliance with our own, however minute and brief.

One last story. In Ireland, the first one done harvesting her field, on Samhain makes a little corn dolly representing Cailleach (called the Carlin) from the last sheaf of crop and tosses it into the field of the neighbor who is slowest in bringing in the grain. And that one is then responsible to house and feed and care for the Old Woman Winter for the season. My question to us and to myself is then this: what would it mean for us to “care for” winter? I have a 104-year old mother, lying supine in a hospice-care bed, 250 miles south of where I live, who is bed-bound now, for the duration, very limited in her horizons of discussion when I call each day, but all there in cheerfulness and spirited laughter and stubborn insistence on being fed on time. She is certainly in the “winter” of her life, on the edge between here and There—but teaching anyone who bothers to look, how to fly while lying supine. She is teaching me. But only gradually am I realizing that in her, I am looking at an entire season of life, indeed of the watershed and the planet. She is not mere individual, but avatar of what birthed and nurtured and fed and now, soon, will re-embrace her. She one day will be Cailleach.

And that Big Holy Woman is the Great Mystery in spirit-form, when the Other Side takes in death like an “old” child and re-creates life. In learning to care for her, I begin to perceive ancestors, and in them, the entire gift of soil and seed and season and night. Compared to such, Trump and company fade to scale—to be resisted for sure, but ultimately, unable to hold a candle to Earth Herself. So somewhere this season, light the fire, speak to the Old Ones and dance! The sun still rises. And winter still envelopes our roots and hopes like a womb.

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