Stevie Wonder once famously assured us that, "Superstition ain't the way." But we haven't, as a culture, taken his advice very well. After all, it's Friday 13th!
For some people that might provoke a furious crossing of their fingers or other quick responses in an attempt to ward off alleged 'bad luck.' To many of us as Christians, this sounds like superstitious nonsense. But what makes Friday 13th special, and why has it developed these associations with bad luck, mystery and even evil?
Well, like many traditions, the actual root of the day is shrouded in some secrecy, with numerous theories abounding as to where it comes from. The Telegraph claims it may have Christian origins, "In the New Testament there were 13 people present for Jesus' last supper on Maundy Thursday, the day before Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday." But that isn't the only allusion to 13, "There are 12 months of the year, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 hours of the clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Jesus, 12 Descendants of Muhammad Imams, among many incidences of the pattern historically."
There seems to be some weight to the idea of Friday 13th being especially significant after the Last Supper. The Economist suggests that, "Those who seek explanations for the superstitious fear of 13 all seem to believe that its crucial quality is quantity. It was Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who brought the numbers up to 13 at the Last Supper (never mind that the same could be said of any of the other disciples, or even of Jesus himself). It was the 13th era, the first after the dozen 1,000-year reigns of the 12 constellations, which supposedly presaged chaos for the ancient Persians, and which even now makes modern Iranians leave their houses and go out to cleanse their souls on Sizdah Be-dar, the 13th day of the year. It was women's 13 menstrual cycles a year that gave the number a bad name when the solar calendar came to displace the 13-cycle lunar calendar. Or so it is said by credulous expositors."
Hmmm... So one plausible explanation is that the tradition of Friday 13th being a 'bad' day goes back to the Last Supper – but it's just one among a plethora of other ancient explanations too.
But all of this archaic speculation may not have been of much relevance to us in the 21st century, were it not for a book which apparently set out to challenge the old superstitions, but ended up having the reverse effect. The Guardian recalls, "The efforts of a high-profile group... followed by a 1907 book about how Friday the 13th "misfortune" is used to destabilise the stock market called "Friday the Thirteenth" and features stockbrokers, not hockey-mask wearing, machete wielding murderers (although which is worse is debatable)."
So what might we, as Christians make of Friday 13th? Well, firstl, though it may have horror films named after it, frankly, it's just another day. There may be those who assign special spiritual significance to it, especially those who are keen to whip up fear around dark spiritual forces. But there's no indication that anything is happening particularly today to make us especially wary of that. As CS Lewis famously thought, it's better to keep such thoughts in proportion rather than let them run away with us.
Lewis said, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight." In other words, why not just let Friday 13th slip by without paying it too much attention? There are real spiritual dangers out there, but this day isn't among them.
If you do want to mark the day, there are plenty of better ways to do so than worrying about whether it's unlucky or even 'evil.' For example, today the Church of England remembers the life of Charles Simeon – an evangelical heavyweight, who helped to found the Church Mission Society and the Bible Society – both of which flourish to this day, more than 200 years later. There's a prayer here to help you remember Simeon.
How about countering the fear some people feel about the day by striking up a conversation with a stranger? Maybe they'll feel better about Friday 13th in future knowing that instead of anything bad happening, they met someone nice. Or maybe today's the day to call that long-lost relative, pay forward a cup of coffee, or simply smile at someone who looks like they're having a hard day.
Friday 13th may have ancient roots as a dark day. But there's no need for us to play along. In fact, it may well be a day for fun, joy and remembering that superstitions don't hold any power over us.
(Oh, and it's my Mum's birthday. Happy birthday Mum!)