I used to fear Halloween. Before I became Catholic, I went to a small non-denominational church that said Halloween was an ancient pagan feast and you are opening yourself to Dark Satanic Powers if you celebrated it. Then I became Catholic and, among other things, came to find out that Halloween was as ancient and pagan as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Sure, there’s a measure of spooooooky stuff, but mostly it’s just a chance to run around in the fall air, visit with the neighbors, and get a sugar rush.
Then I started thinking about how frustrating it must be for the Devil each Halloween. Here you are, a superhuman fallen angel. In your rage and spite at God, you tempt our First Parents to sin against God Almighty, bring death into the world, and lead the human race to become genocidal monsters capable of crucifying the Incarnate God Himself. Everything looks like it’s going your way on Good Friday.
And then it all goes south. Christ is raised from the dead and, worse still, more and more people start resisting you successfully by the power of the Holy Spirit! Rebuking you with power! Laughing at you! Casting your buddies out of possessed people. Making smart remarks even when your servants are roasting them on griddles, like that galling St. Lawrence smirking “You can turn me over. I’m done on this side.” The impudence! Don’t these puny humans know who you are? You’re friggin’ Lucifer and now these hairless bipeds are sharing in the life of the Blessed Trinity Himself while you are in hell trying to claim that the endless noise and chaos are All Part of the Plan and everything will work out with you running the show.
So you console yourself by seducing whoever will buy it with offers of occult power and table-tipping and satanic whatnot. Or you spend your time scaring whoever will buy it with tales of your invincible power and inevitable victory. But in the back of your mind, you have that nagging knowledge that the progress of the gospel is freeing more and more people from the fear of death. You do your best to inculcate the belief that the puny humans have to do something disgusting and desperate in order to get the spiritual world to pay attention to them. And you get your Lady Macbeths and Heinrich Himmlers for a while. But they keep winding up, not as triumphant winners, but as losers who only serve as warnings to others.
And every year there’s Halloween. What a letdown! You like the rumors that this is Your Night. Humans are suckers for that. But quite apart from the fact that the Christians use the season to pray for their dead and deliver them from your clutches, even the rest of the culture is now disappointingly unafraid of you.
It’s like that time back in the 30s and 40s when the young hairless bipeds were afraid of monsters like Frankenstein’s Creature and Dracula. Ten years later, those fears, instead of crippling them, became fun matinee distractions from the real horrors happening at the hands of true monsters all over Europe and the Pacific. Indeed, as they matured into adults, the grace of God enabled those frightened kids to face and fight the Axis and crush it. By the time they got home, their childhood fears were chuckled at in things like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This generation that started out afraid of Boris Karloff wound up triumphing over Hitler and Stalin and even going to the moon! They went on to die, most of them, not curled in a fetal position, but old and full of years, surrounded by their grandchildren. And a lot of them made their peace with God too! All that promise of youthful fear wrecked by that interfering God you were sure you’d gotten rid of on that long ago Friday. It’s gotta be frustrating as… well, hell for the Devil.
Though, of course, it leaves things open for the opposite strategy in our secular age: getting people to not believe in him at all. That is, to be sure, always a danger. But the Devil is, as the medievals liked to say, an ass. So he tends to tip his hand by inspiring acts of evil so colossal and yet so pointless that people do tend to get the message that there is more than human evil at work in the world. The Holocaust, for instance: sheer irrational malevolence with no human explanation behind it ultimately. Militarily, it was folly. It actually diverted energy and resources away from Germany’s war effort in order to achieve pointless slaughter. Sensible people look at it and find it remarkably easy to believe in the demonic.
And if such people listen to the Christian tradition, they conclude that the Devil is real, that he wills our temptation and our destruction, but that we in Christ need not fear him.
That’s why St. Lawrence and every other Christian martyr could laugh, including St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein, both victims of the Holocaust. Why? Because for them too the Risen Christ beat Satan on the first Easter. We can, like them, likewise laugh from beneath the shelter of God’s wings. Sure, Satan will try to tempt us and he may even try to kill us. But we fear not the first death. Christ is victor.
The deuill, the prowde spirit, cannot endure to be mock’d.
– St. Thomas More, Martyr