Today, or I should say more properly tonight, is Halloween, the celebration of all that is macabre and ghoulish. It’s hard to think of Halloween without envisioning ghosts, with all their associations of unfinished business, and unfilled longing. I’m reminded once again of the Buddhist notion of the ‘hungry ghosts’, an existential state where those who did not get control over their appetites in their earthly life spend their afterlife in a constant and frightening state of lack, need, and hunger, with gaping mouths and distended bellies, always eating but never filled.
But, of course, the name Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ (i.e., Saints’) Eve. And so, perhaps more than any other celebration on our calendars, Halloween-All Saints lives in a thin place between two very different worlds: ghosts and goblins on the one hand and saints and martyrs on the other. Rather than decrying this — either from the side of those who claim Christians tried and failed to appropriate a pagan holiday, or from the side of those Christians who want to rid Halloween of any ghoulish connotations — today I’d like to celebrate this strange coming together by reflecting on another of the metaphor pairs in the Bible for sin and salvation: hunger (and thirst) and being sated or filled. For in the way of the saints lies the solution to our hungry ghosts.
Food and drink provide the major image in the Old Testament reading for All Saints Day this year. From Isaiah 25, it reads:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. … Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (6-9)
Here, God’s salvation is clearly described in terms of a feast, not just simple peasant foods, but the most luxurious foods someone in the Ancient Near East might imagine. This is a common motif in the Scriptures. As I mentioned the other day, in the Exodus, the Promised Land is described as a place of abundance, but this abundance is specifically one of milk and honey, that is, foods full of fat and sugar. Psalm 107.9 says of God, “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things,” and Psalm 146.7 lists the feeding of the hungry alongside the freeing of captives and execution of justice for oppressed peoples as signs of God’s activity in the the world. In the New Testament, one of the major ways Jesus’ announces his ministry is to provide wine for thirsty people and food for hungry crowds. And the Kingdom of God is likened to a feast.
While physical provision of food for hungry people is certainly in view in the New Testament (see Romans 12.20 and 1 Corinthians 11.21 for example), it’s also clear that food and drink are used as metaphors. Jesus has a discussion with the Samaritan Woman about well water but immediately redirects her to think about the spiritual ‘living water’ which will truly quench her inner thirsts (John 4). Similarly, after feeding the five thousand, Jesus tells the crowds, “Don’t work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6.27). He wants them to be filled with more than bread. This is also how Jesus uses the image of food and drink in the Beatitudes, where her blesses “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5.6).
If being filled up with spiritual food and drink is a symbol of salvation, what might this tell us about sin? Here, the prevailing image is one of a fundamental lack. Once again, we have an image that downplays personal fault or blame. Much as there is sufficient food in our communities for everyone to have enough — for the existence of food insecurity to be a policy choice — so too is there more than enough love, grace, and all the other spiritual food for everyone to be filled. And yet, we live in a society of people starving to be seen and parched for love. And, more often than not, we seek to fill those gaping needs with other things — overeating, drugs and alcohol, sex, social media likes, and so on. I think this is why the image of the hungry ghosts with which I began today’s reflection has become so popular in the West, beyond its East Asian origins, over the past couple of decades. We see in its cautionary tale of beings unable to have their needs sated a reflection of ourselves. In a sinful world — a world that does not reflect the Kingdom of God — we are not loved as we should be loved, we are not treated as precious creations of a good God. In a sinful world, grace is scarce and love is a commodity to be earned. No wonder so many of us find ourselves hungry and unable to find the food that truly fills us up.
But this is not the way God’s Kingdom works. It is like a feast where all are invited, where all who choose to come are filled with good spiritual food. The saints, of every age and place, are those who have hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and who have been filled. May we follow their example today and always.
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