If there’s any [formerly Christian] holiday that has been ruined to the same degree as Christmas by oversaturation on commercial television it is, in my view, Hallowe’en. Beginning shortly after the autumnal equinox, there are numerous offerings of various horror, monster, suspense, and occasionally genuinely Hallowe’en-connected films. (My personal favorite is the rarely-shown Sleepy Hollow, even with its anachronistic and miscontextualized use of jack-o’-lanterns. But one viewing in late October is plenty.)
The film that mystified me by its presence in the Hallowe’enathon was 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. I remember watching it as a boy, and being captivated by the (then-) cutting-edge special effects. It has been explained to me that since one of the final scenes is a sword battle with skeletons, and skeletons=Hallowe’en, I needed to stop overthinking this and trying to connect the original mythic legend with the holiday at hand.
The film’s narrative device is that of a chess game on Mount Olympus between Hera (the goddess-protector of Jason and his men) and Zeus (trying to thwart Jason and gang). Each adventure they have while seeking the golden fleece is a chessboard “move” by Zeus followed by a counter-move of Hera’s to rescue them.
Now, it just may be the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (a.k.a. “frequency illusion”) in action, but whenever I see this movie, or a part of it (or the chessboard scene in the first Harry Potter movie), it strikes me that there are more than a few Christians who still tend to be stuck in this Graeco-Roman understanding of how the Deity interacts with us mortals. My own spiritual upbringing was filled with a number of versions of the Hera-Zeus chess match, only played out by Jesus (angry judge) and Mary (merciful referee). Our human desire/need to know the “Why?” of everything is deeply wired in, but sometimes this leads us to believe that having an explanation means that explanation is right, or true, or even necessary. It’s part of the very long and continuing quest on our part for a theodicy that we can embrace and truly live with. (If you don’t have enough to read, I recommend David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea” on this topic.)
I often wonder if a liturgical dimension of all this is manifested when we begin to view the Missal as a cookbook to whip up a perfect batch of divinity, or the Bible as an owner’s manual (our owner’s manual for God, that is), in which our rites and prayers are understood as ways for us to control—or, in the intercessions, change—the Divine. Or perhaps the liturgical dimension happens when we think the purpose of these books is to guide us to a checkmate in our ongoing chess match with heaven.
Once the Hallowe’en movie viewing is over (and the Christmas sales jingles have begun), when I take the time to reflect on the lives of the saints, I rarely find in them this type of nuts ‘n’ bolts explanatory chess moves behavior. The saints have given (and continue to give) us deeper insights into the God-with-us, but seem to refuse to give an answer to Isaiah/Paul: Who has known the mind of God? Following St. Paul’s subsequent advice to the Corinthians, we live with the mind of Christ, and know that the journey of a Christianaut isn’t always one whose manifold purposes can be fully grasped or understood here and now. To have the mind of Christ—bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit—will not always satisfy our mortal need to know. Yet we remain certain that it is enough for the journey.