November is a spectacular month for the Church.
We begin by venerating all the saints – the Church Triumphant.
We immediately follow that celebration by beginning to pray for all departed souls – the Church Penitent.
Given that these feasts follow immediately after one another, it might be an idea for those of us who are here in the Church Militant to consider the sheer breadth and depth of the Mystical Body of Christ; a communion that transcends the boundary between life and death.
And in light of that fact, we might wish to evaluate the way we engage with the world; the willingness with which we adopt certain patterns of behaviour or thought.
Those tremendous words of St Paul have always struck a chord within me: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)
Not that there is anything wrong with our cultural or national particularities, of course.
On certain occasions celebrations of this diversity within our unity of faith may well be appropriate.
Yet whilst we have national symbols to remind us of our respective traditions and the efforts of those who worked to build up and bequeath to us the treasures of our national patrimony, we ought not lose sight of the fact that our bond of communion extends far beyond national boundaries and cultural particularities.
It even extends beyond the grave.
Our true citizenship, as Christians, is that of heaven.
In the words of the Dominican Marie-Dominic Chenu, ‘differentiation based on earthly categories should mean nothing to a member of the Church. We are all children of the same Father, redeemed by the same blood.’
And the particular focus of the month of November – praying for the dead – is no doubt a salutary reminder of that fact.
For we have a tendency to become rather attached to particular ways of viewing the world; particular lenses which we prefer to use when it comes to questions of politics and economics.
Our political structures appear to encourage an almost partisan sense of loyalty on at least some level, whether that takes the form of allegiance to a particular party or ideology, or even to a specific geographic region within a nation or continent.
We are driven by the very composition of the society in which we live to claim and then profess loyalty to any number of competing factions or fictions.
As faithful disciples of Christ, while we are undoubtedly compelled to take an active part in ministering to the broken world in which we live, we ought not be seduced into becoming devotees of one particular ideology over another, or even one nation over another.
As put most succinctly by Jean Cardinal Daniélou, ‘If anything is certain about the Christian view of economic and political values, it is that they are entirely relative. To treat them as absolute is a form of idolatry.’
It would, after all, seem rather strange for us to spend our days in church venerating the memories of those early Christian martyrs who died as a result of refusing to pay homage to state-sanctioned gods within the bounds of the Roman Empire, only then to turn around and treat our own modern-day idols of political or economic theory as unvarying lodestars which govern our lives.
As we spend much of this month praying for the souls of those who have gone before us, we ought to be reminded that this is not our home.
We are hopefully made more conscious of the fact that, in death, our lives are ‘changed, not ended’ as is beautifully expressed in the preface for the Mass of the Dead.
And this faith-filled understanding of our lives ought to colour our approach to engagement with the world, in whatever field, be it economic, political or anything else.
Scripture, as is often the case, is continually emphasising this point in a subtle yet illuminating way.
St Peter addresses his first letter ‘to the exiles’ (1 Peter 1:1).
St Paul tells his readers, ‘conform yourselves no longer to this present world’ (Romans 12:12).
In the Letter to the Philippians he goes on to highlight the fact that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20).
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks in moving terms of our ancestors in faith being ‘strangers and foreigners on the earth’ and of their ‘desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Clearly the earliest Christian communities understood their existence in these terms; they saw themselves as living pilgrimages of faith in exile upon this earth, awaiting their true homeland in heaven.
They certainly did not become partisans of one political party, or one economic ideology.
Even non-scriptural texts from the earliest years in the history of the Church reflect this same emphasis.
The First Letter of Clement – written towards the end of the first century – explicitly employs this understanding of our place in the Mystical Body of Christ.
The author writes: ‘from the Church of God in exile at Rome, to the Church of God in exile at Corinth.’
Understanding our place in the death-transcending communion of the Church can help us to live our Christian lives with hope.
Hope for those who have gone before us and for whom we pray.
Hope for ourselves, that we might one day be united with them and all the saints.
These thoughts are wonderfully captured in a small work by the fourteenth century Dominican Mystic, Blessed Henry Suso.
He is addressed by Eternal Wisdom in these words:
Thou art here as a stranger guest, a sad pilgrim; therefore, as a pilgrim hastens back to his home where his dear friends expect him, and wait for him with great longing, so shouldst thou desire to hasten back to thy Fatherland, where all will be glad to see thee, where all long so ardently for thy joyous presence, that they may greet thee tenderly, and unite thee to their blessed society forever.
Our communion in Christ transcends death: let us not cling too tightly to the things of this world, lest we have no hands free to return that tender greeting.