By Father Joseph Brando
November, in these parts, is the time when trees reach their brightest glow. Then their leaves, by means of a parachuting parade of color in a gloriously choreographed leap, dance to the ground. When that display is completed, the people who lived, spring and summer, under a green canopy now enjoy a clear view of vistas and skies, heights and depths.
So also, the Liturgy of November opens us up to some of the most basic and mind-penetrating mysteries of the faith. It does so by presenting not four but six major holy days, only one of which is “ordinary.” All together, the Liturgy of the Word during the Sundays of November presents us with a festival of beauty opening us to thoughts of Christmas.November starts out with the feast of All Saints. Like those leaves wafting downward, the Liturgy treats us to visions of multitudes of eternally happy people taking their place in heaven. Our faith leads us to this conclusion intellectually and in actual fact. Like the autumn leaves, the saints’ robes change color from the red of the Lord’s blood to the white of victory and glory.
What emerges from this glorious procession into paradise is the theme of ‘power of God’s love,’ which makes us his children. We become “blessed” by a purification process that begins when we become “poor in spirit.” One way of looking at that concept is to consider “spirit” to be our life’s breath. Throughout our lives every word we spoke and every action we performed was cleansed until everything we said or did was pure. Hence, symbolically, our clothing would appear pure white.
The very next day, Sunday, is the feast of All Souls. Here, we are lead deep into our faith to plunge into the mystery of death. What we find there is worth diving into. We grow in hope because we find immortality. The vehicle for getting to that point is the Old Testament Book of Wisdom. The passage admits that this life can be tough. We can find ourselves punished and chastised. But these pains can be a test that proves to God we are worthy of blessing and the ultimate gift of eternal life. It is “not for nothing” that we undergo the trials of life. In fact, they are tickets to heaven. Therefore, we can rejoice even while we experience them here on earth.
It was “not for nothing” that the Second Person of the Trinity was sent to us by the Father. Jesus came to do the will of the Father, which is “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” So, Jesus had a mission and the good news is he will not fail. Our hope is sure. Jesus came down to earth to bring us up to heaven. That’s what makes All Soul’s Day a feast.
The next Sunday has been usurped by the celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Highlighting an important church (the one from which the Bishop of Rome presides), the scripture readings feature the concept of “Temple.” This ties in brilliantly with the idea of our eternal destiny. The Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel starts us off. Ezekiel’s vision takes him into a new temple far better than David’s temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. For all its beauty, the prophet’s eye was drawn to water leaking out from the foundation. He was directed to follow the water. The water (that represents life) keeps going out farther and deeper, cutting through the desert, until it connects with the sea. The life-giving water from the temple becomes the life source for the entire world.
The next reading, which comes to us from Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, makes an extremely precise and important connection. The temple is now a symbol representing the Christian community. Paul informs the Corinthians that they are a temple. They are the ones God uses to bring eternal life to the world. He might as well have written that letter to us. We, too, are a temple bringing Christ’s life to others.
And that’s not all. The Gospel relates the action of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple. He’s not washing walls or floors. He’s cleansing people. The temple is the place where God and people meet. We, too, must be purified. Jesus makes that point in John’s Last Supper account. Jesus identifies himself as the temple that will be destroyed only to be rebuilt in three days. We are invited to join Jesus in this action and be purified in the process.
Now, we move onto the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, the only Sunday in November that is “ordinary.” Appropriately, it deals with time. In the first reading, the wise teacher describes a really good wife. If you include the items the liturgical editor leaves out, she is a person who makes every second count. She weaves and sews; she cleans and cooks; she cares for her husband and children; she even has a business on the side. She receives, in return, the heart of her beloved. The message here is that work gives us more than worldly rewards. Work has an eternal purpose as well. It can prove our love.
The second reading answers a New Testament question: When is the Lord coming so we can stop working and enjoy eternal life? The answer comes in the form of Paul’s theology of time. Simply put, always be ready. There’s no time for taking a nap or spending time gossiping or being a busybody. Work not only generates an income that can be used for the good of the Christian community and for the poor. Then, when the risen Christ does come, we will be ready for him; and he will reward us with eternal joy.
Jesus’ answer to that same question is in the Gospel for that Sunday. The Lord tells the parable of the talents. As a child, on hearing this passage, I felt sorry for the poor servant who was only given one talent, kept it safe and then was punished when the master returned. Now, I know a little better. As you may know, a talent was a unit of weight usually attributed to an amount of money. As such, one could have a talent of gold or silver or some other commodity. Presuming it was gold, the value of one talent is just about $1 million. Now, if you concur with those who say the value of $1 million is not the same as it was in the 1950s, and then you might also agree that $1 billion is the new $1 million. Now, can you see what the third servant was doing? He buried $1 billion. What would you do with $1 billion? It would be a sin to waste it. That kind of money was made to be invested, not buried. So, I no longer feel sorry that the third servant was reprimanded and punished. Jesus gives us this illustration in order to urge us on. God’s grace, like huge sums of money, can grow and can help those in need and good causes and bring joy to our friends. It is not meant to be wasted. Grace is much more valuable than a billion dollars. We will be judged on the basis of what we did with it. This parable may very well have had a powerful impact on the early Christians. Instead of wanting the Parousia to come right now, they might, after hearing the parable, pray rather for more time to get their investments in order. That might not be a bad idea for us.
Now we come to November’s grand climax. The last two Sunday’s of the month are the last Sunday of Ordinary Time (the feast of Christ the King), and the first Sunday of the new Church year (the first Sunday of Advent). This transition from one year to the next is, at the same time, grandiose and smooth. Let’s take a look and finish with a flourish.
The feast of Christ the King, strangely, presents concepts about God’s leadership that are, at first glance, puzzling. Actually the scriptures want us to be puzzled so that when we find the true meaning we will be delightfully surprised at the new insight we have gained.
The first reading introduces us to that aspect of God’s kingship that is best described as that of a shepherd. It is dirty work, but it is vital. The Lord, as a Good Shepherd, seeks us out when we stray, rescues us, loves us, protects us, and leads us to green pastures. That’s a brand of leadership we all can use.
St. Paul, in the second reading, leads us into the forest of deep theology as he follows Ezekiel’s lead. Paul explains that the King wakes us from death into new life. Between now and his second coming, the Lord is destroying all the factors of life that provide obstacles for humans to get to God. Paul calls them sovereignties, authorities and powers. He’s talking about such realities as those that allow the evil to succeed, that make good family life difficult. It’s the power that makes money into a much desired value while following God’s plan is ridiculed. Whatever causes people to lie, cheat, and steal, those powers our King will destroy with our help. These authorities also include all the causes of poverty, disease, pain and everything else that opposes the kingdom of God. To eliminate those enemies of the good he wants us enrolled in his army.
Today’s Gospel gives us a glimpse at “the Apocalypse of Saint Matthew.” There, Matthew reveals what the final judgment might be like. Have we fought with our Good Shepherd and King against poverty and hunger? We can do so by merely giving help to the destitute or a simple morsel of leftover food to the hungry, or a care package to a foreign country or join a mission trip, or standing up and leading others in a movement. The list can go on to bigger and more effective ways. Matthew’s point is that we do the best we can (not wasting our talent) for the Kingdom. And, you’ll be ushered into his Kingdom after the last judgment.
That was the message that ended the old year. November has the continued privilege of providing the first words of the new Church Year. Those words come from Isaiah and they begin with a complaint against God. Basically, Isaiah can’t understand why life on earth is so messy. “Our guilt carries us away like the wind.” He asks, does God allow himself to get dirty as he extracts us out of the trouble we find ourselves in? Fortunately, Isaiah comes up with the answer. Who get their hands dirty working? One answer is: a potter. Yes! God is working as a potter with hands made dirty creating us out of the clay of the earth. He also gets his hands dirty helping us out of our pains, sorrows, and messes. We have a God who cares and is willing to pay the price for our salvation.
Paul is on the same track in the second reading. He begins his letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for all the graces bestowed on them. Yet, the reason he was writing to them was to correct the many problems they were having, the greatest of which was disunity. Paul did not hesitate to get his hands dirty for the sake of helping the Corinthians to see their problems and correcting them. We can do the same in our families and gatherings. It is easy merely to ignore the problems or realize that the people involved will turn on us and enmesh us into the problem. That wisdom notwithstanding, Paul dives in. First, he praises them for their attributes, assuring them of his love. Then he deals with the problems sternly but lovingly.
Finally, the first Gospel of the year announces that our relationship with God is like that of a servant given the task of taking care of the household while the master is abroad. There’s no telling when he might return. But when he does there will be a reckoning. So, we dare not fall asleep or even forget one task that must be done. That is our function now. We wait and work to make the Master glad that he trusted us and richly reward us with eternal life.
November ends with the clear vision of a gracious God who, at the end, will give the faithful a reward that is out of this world.