Zacchaeus: When We Find our Sycamore Tree

Let’s look at some of the history of Halloween, the story of Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree, and All Saints/All Souls Day. Then let’s see if the Holy Spirit makes a connection.Most historians agree that Halloween began with the pagan Druids in Ireland many, many centuries ago. In their calendar, influenced so much by the harvest, October 31st was the last day of the year. November first was New Year’s. The Druids believed that on the last night of the year the spirits of the dead would rise – just for that one night. That was both a good thing and a scary thing. People looked forward to experiencing the presence of their deceased loved ones. But they also didn’t want some spirits to come back. Hence costumes to hide from the unwanted spiritual visitors.

The “night of the dead” was popular in Ireland and it was also practiced in a variety of ways in numerous cultures. It seems to be a universal belief that the dead are alive somewhere and they can still contact us.

In the same era, the Church celebrated All Saints Day but it was celebrated in the spring. In the 800’s the Church absorbed the pagan practices (something we have done frequently) by moving All Saints to November first and renaming the “night of the dead” to “The Eve of All Hallows (saints).”

That created a problem and an opportunity in Ireland. All Saints Day was a feast day requiring just that – prayer followed by a feast. But many in Ireland were poor and had little available for a feast. So on The Eve of All Hallows (Halloween), they went door to door begging for food for the next day’s feast. Later this practice evolved. The Church added “All Souls Day” to follow “All Saints Day.”  That meant praying for the souls in Purgatory. As the beggars would go door to door, they would promise, in exchange for food, to pray for the souls of the deceased in that family. This door-to-door journey was known as “souling” and the cakes given for the prayers were called, “soul-cakes.”

Souling on Halloween, Mary Mapes Dodge(Life time: 1905), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1700’s one skeptical woman thought, “I bet a lot of people eat these cakes and forget to pray for the souls in Purgatory.” She came up with a solution. She put a hole in the middle of her cakes so that when the recipient would eat through the cake and get to the hole, he would be reminded to say the prayer he promised. Doughnuts were born.

You may be wondering what this has to do with Sunday’s gospel story of Zacchaeus. Stay with me. You know the story. Zacchaeus, “chief tax collector and rich”, hears Jesus is coming to town. He goes to see if he can get a glimpse of him but the crowd is dense and he is short. He climbs a sycamore tree to see above the crowd. Jesus sees him, goes to the tree and tells Zacchaeus that he wants to have dinner with him. At dinner Zacchaeus appears to have a great conversion and promises to give half his wealth to the poor and if any are defrauded he will repay them back four times as much. But, and here’s the key, some linguists say the text should not be, “I will do this” but, “I already do this.” Zacchaeus is telling Jesus he already gives half his possessions to the poor. He already repays defrauded people four times what they are owed. In other words, he is a good man. But he is still unhappy. There is still something missing. There is an emptiness in the middle of his soul.

Zakæ (Christ And Zacchaeus) Niels Larsen Stevns – Own work (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark) Public Domain

And that is true for all of us. The woman who invented doughnuts is onto something. We are built with an inner emptiness and we try to fill it in so many ways. Some of those ways might be self-destructive. Some of those ways might be good – like giving half of what we have to the poor. But nothing will ever fill that hole except a relationship with the Living God. That is why Jesus can say to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Now Zacchaeus is connected to the source of all life.

Theologians have expressed this in many ways through the years. St. Augustine wrote, “my heart is restless until it rests in You.” Dag Hammarskjold, the philosopher and philanthropist wrote in his diary:

“I don’t know who – or what – put the question. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer yes to someone – or something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

Dag Hammarskjold

Paul Tillich, in a famous sermon fifty years ago, put it like this:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. Accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”  

Paul Tillich

Sounds like Zacchaeus to me.

Now let’s take this doughnut spirituality and move it to All Saints/All Souls Day. On this day we will think of those we love but see no longer. There is an acknowledgement that someone is missing. How do we say, “yes” to that truth and say, “yes” to Eternal Life? Let’s turn to that great theologian, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss wrote a song – Terry’s Song – when a friend and E Street band member died. Here are some of the words:

“They say you can’t take it with you

But I think they’re wrong.

All I know is I woke up this morning and something big was gone

Gone to that dark ether

Where you’re still young n’hard and cold

just like when they built you brother

And broke the mold

Now your death is upon us

And we’ll return your ashes to the earth

And I know you’ll take comfort in knowin’

You’ve been roundly blessed and cursed

But love is a power greater than death.”

Bruce Springsteen

If you don’t believe Springsteen, then believe the words of The Book of Common Prayer:

“If we have life, we are alive in the Lord. If we die, we die in the Lord. So then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”

The Book of Common Prayer, Christian Burial, Rite II

We are saved by relationship with the Living God. Forever. The emptiness is addressed when we find our sycamore tree, that place that allows us to see and meet God. For some of us that place might be our local church.

There is a story told of a little five year old whose family was visited by relatives who lived far away. The family took the relatives on a tour of their town. As they drove near the church, the five year old said to his cousins, “That’s where God gives us bread.”

God will give us bread – inviting us into a relationship that gives life. Salvation has come to this house. Amen.