What We Remember in November

November is a month to pray for the faithful departed and contemplate the body of Christ and the life of the world to come.

Joža Uprka, “Souls,” 1897
Joža Uprka, “Souls,” 1897 (photo: Public Domain)

The month of November is a little like its own liturgical season. There is a flavor to its liturgies not merely dependent on the glow of early Christmas lights, the pungency of cranberries and the sparsity of once-flagrant leaves.

Part of November’s liturgical flavor is death. This is the month when the Catholic faithful especially pray at cemeteries and in general for the faithful departed.

But November is flavored too by its inclusion of All Saints Day and the Solemnity of Christ the King, which make it also a month for contemplating the body of Christ in its members, the saints, whether they are part of the earthly kingdom of God or its heavenly fulfillment.

The distinctions in the body of Christ, “Church militant” on earth, “Church suffering” in Purgatory and “Church triumphant” in heaven should not obscure this reality that all three “churches” are one in their activity of prayer and virtue and, above all, in their Head. Christ has only one mystical body, and its unity is more real than we sometimes realize.

The biblical descriptions of this ecclesial unity are particularly vivid in November readings that emphasize the littleness of Christian life. One such excerpt from Titus is one of those Pauline laundry lists of good behavior: Old men should be “temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance.” Old women should be “reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good.” Young women should “love their husbands and children … be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, under the control of their husbands.” Young men should “control themselves … [be] a model[s] of good deeds in every respect, with integrity in your teaching, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be criticized.”

St. Paul might have one eye on the Roman law courts — these qualities are commended to Titus’ flock “so that the opponent will be put to shame without anything bad to say about us.” But bourgeois norms of ancient Rome or modern America aside, the real reason to behave ourselves is not to avoid scandal but because, as God’s people, we want to honor “the blessed hope” we have of Christ’s coming in glory. And because “the salvation of the just comes from the Lord,” we do not execute our own salvation via acts of signal and conspicuous virtue but rather with diligent humility, doing the Good Boring Stuff and remembering that being God’s just people means also accepting that we are “unprofitable servants” who “have done what we were obliged to do.” This is the juggling of holiness: not to forget the weight of glory, and not to let it go to our heads.

That juggling act is possible because we are small parts of something large. That whole-part relationship is underscored in one of those odd November feasts that make Catholics reach back to memories of high school Church history (if they were lucky enough to have it): the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Ezekiel opens with one of his hallucinatory images: a temple from out of which water flows and “empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,” fish and fruit trees the leaves of which “shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” The psalm develops this idea of a paradisial river whose waters “gladden the city of God” which “shall not be disturbed” for “God is in its midst.”

But lest we be too millennialist in interpretating this, the good authors of the lectionary sock us over the head with a Pauline passage to clarify what Ezekiel and David dimly saw. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul writes, “You are God’s building.”

That’s not heaven Ezekiel is describing, or some nebulous thing called the Church — or rather, what he sees is not only an image of something other. It is also an image of us. St. Paul is saying that the Old Testament metaphors — which Jesus too uses when he speaks of “the kingdom of God” — are already being fulfilled. God’s city is not only heavenly; it is being built up on earth for we “are God’s building” and his “temple” in which “the Spirit of God dwells,” of which Jesus is the “foundation.” As Jesus says in another place: the kingdom of God is within human beings.

So the imagery and language of holy temple and holy city are in some sense ours as Christians. We are “holy” — not, that is, without fault, but in the ancient sense of being chosen and set apart for serving God. And unlike literal temples and basilicas, this house of humanity is one (so says the Alleluia verse) which God “[has] chosen and consecrated … that [his] name may be there forever.” When Rome and Jerusalem crumble to dust, the one thing remaining that will bear God’s name forever is what God built when He scooped up dirt and slime and in breathed life: humankind.

This permanence is part of why it behooves us to act (as St. Paul might describe it) in “a manner worthy of our calling.” When Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple (which is the Gospel for the Lateran feast) emphasizes that holy places matter. But here too Jesus links the holy place and that place of all places, the human person. When those in the temple ask him to prove his authority to reform commerce in “[his] Father’s house,” Jesus prophesies his resurrection: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus is claiming ultimate reforming authority as the Messiah and God; he is also redirecting attention from the house of God that is a building and the house of God who is a person, and whose natural and now resurrected and glorified body show us, his mystical body, what we will one day become.

That process of becoming is already underway. It is unhelpful to that process, Jesus tells us, to look backward or forward. He warns his disciples that there will come days when we “will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man.” How many Christians have asked that over the centuries — ah, if only I could have been there, in the Holy Land, while Christ walked its stones, and walked with him! But, Jesus says, “you will not see it.” And during these second hidden days of Our Lord, we crave clear manifestations of his presence: miracles here, visions there, prophecies fulfilled, mystical interpretations of contemporary events, signs by which we can discern the advent of the latter day. “There will be those who will say to you,” Jesus says, “‘Look, there he is,’ or ‘Look, here he is.’ Do not go off, do not run in pursuit.”

It is tempting to capture his presence clearly, without the metaphors: without the moldy basilica or the sacraments performed too coldly, too irreverently, or too irrelevantly to respect their conveyance of daily bread and life-giving water. But God is still here: in the sacramental signs and in us. Those are the links to Jesus; and we must resist that temptation to concretize, to find him more literally now.

When we receive Holy Communion we walk with heaven inside of us — an inside that is (recalling C.S. Lewis) bigger than the outside. We walk as part of the eternal city of God when we walk back from the Communion rail. And if we are the stones of that holy dwelling, and each of us still a holy place in the process of being built (as St. Paul reminds us), then we too, like the temple in Ezekiel’s vision, are places from which water runs to make the salt seas fresh and make a paradise of grace on earth.

All this, if we can be like the servants in the parable, humbly perform our tasks of waiting one by one as the Master asks, and by so fulfilling our places in God’s household, cooperate in His continued building, his recreation. Then indeed we need not look for the kingdom of God, for it will be in us; in us and through us God acts, thought we mark it not. “For just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.”