Seasonal

Preparing for November (Year C)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2019, Year C, copyright © 2018 Augsburg Fortress.

In this final month of the church year, we are presented with Luke’s understanding of ends and beginnings, of death and resurrection, thus providing assemblies the opportunity to think anew about their life together under the cross and empty tomb of Jesus.

Endings and Beginnings

Lutherans hold a particular understanding of our endings and beginnings. Martin Luther understood there to be two kinds of death, a little death and a big death. The big death is what occurs in the waters of baptism when the sinful self and the power of sin, death, and the devil are drowned; they no longer have the last word or ultimate power over us. Because Jesus has died and is raised, and because in the waters of baptism we are joined to him in his death and resurrection, we face the end with anticipation. Though we are sinful, in the waters of baptism we are also given a new identity: a saint, a child of God, one forgiven, loved, saved through the love of God in Jesus Christ. There is reason to celebrate the end; there, in the end, is a new beginning. There, in the end, is Jesus.

The little death, for Luther, is the physical death, when there is no more breath in our bodies or life in our limbs. This death tends to be the one that engenders fear, the one in which tears are shed for what is lost, for what will no longer be. When a physical death comes decades before it should have, those left to mourn experience a mix of emotions. While, on the one hand, the faithful know that this dear person was a child of God, this child of God is no longer physically here with us. For that we grieve.

Years ago, in his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker emphasized the cultural fascination not with death itself but with denying its presence, its impact on our lives. Those whose loved ones have died, or are facing an untimely diagnosis of their own that will eventually lead to death, know the struggle of the end in Christian faith. Though resurrection is a real and present reality, the sting of the end is no less real. Instead of denying death, the church can welcome honest conversation about death even when this is difficult. November can be an appropriate time for adult forums on Christian funerals or end-of-life care.

At the end of this season, Christ the King, we find Jesus on the cross between two who are dying. In pain and alone, those on either side of him engage him in conversation. On the one side is someone who wants Jesus to avoid the cross and to help them avoid the cross as well. (The denial of death, indeed!) On the other side is someone who recognizes the situation for what it is and realizes Jesus for who he is. This person asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). This is an honest cry, a lament, in which despair and hope are hurled at Jesus on the cross. There is no sugarcoating the situation of the person hanging next to Jesus; while the criminal recognizes that “we are getting what we deserve,” there is, somewhere from within, a deep and abiding sense of hope (Luke 23:41). There is no indication that this one has had any prior contact with Jesus or that he has heard of Jesus. All that he sees is Jesus on the cross; this, alone and at the end, is enough for him. In view of Jesus on the cross, all the denials end; all that is left is hope.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This statement from Jesus reveals something of Luke’s eschatology, his understanding of the end, in which there is both a futurity to the promise and a real and present hope. Though Jesus’ statement conveys a sense of time, it also conveys a sense of place since it is said in the most godforsaken place one could imagine. Because Jesus says this from the cross, there is a turning that happens for the way reality is seen and experienced. Luke’s Jesus is not likely to die if it means that the status quo, with its structural and social sinfulness, remains the same. His resurrection now, “today,” turns things right side up, toward a kingdom that has no end.

At the beginning of November, and like the thief on the cross, those whom Jesus declares “blessed” on All Saints Sunday are not those whom society would necessarily recognize as such; understandings of the kingdom and of kingship are turned upside down. Unlike Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, in which the blessed are more spiritual than physical, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain calls blessed those on whom society has turned its back. Those not blessed, like those blessed in Jesus’ telling, are completely opposite from the way society may categorize them. While some may disagree with how Luke’s gospel describes blessing and woe, it is good to remember that Jesus is not taking up politics nor is he up for election as an earthly ruler. Rather, Jesus’ teaching comes from the perspective of a cross and a resurrection. Once Jesus emerges from the tomb, things can never again be the way they once were.

Jesus’ promise that “today you will be with me” points to a tension in the life of believers. Although we are in the midst of death, Jesus is with us in baptism, this beginning that takes a lifetime to complete. Being with Jesus is not only for the future but for now, for today. Because we trace our lives in the waters of baptism, the promise of Jesus’ presence with us and with a broken, hurting world with whom we walk is cause for giving thanks. On the day of Thanksgiving—or when the assembly gathers to give thanks and remember blessings—we open ourselves again to be fed and nourished by Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6:35).

Many will gather in November not only around the Lord’s table but with family and friends for Thanksgiving celebrations. Taking into account the compassion and concern woven throughout Luke’s gospel, how can we hear the voices absent from our tables and give thanks for them? Can we invite others to the feast? Likewise, in our worshiping assemblies, can we be willing to risk a welcome so wide and deep that even those whom we do not know say, alongside of us, “Give us this bread always” (John 6:34)? If your congregation holds a community meal on Thanksgiving or other times, can the atmosphere of this meal welcome diverse backgrounds and experiences? In the meal sharing, would it be a possible to invite these new friends to introduce the assembly to the food and customs of their communities?

Music and Environment

Worship in this month focused on endings and beginnings can be made more palpable through our choices of music, liturgical action, and the use of worship space. Can musical choices include hymns and songs that both celebrate what has been and anticipate in hope what is to come? A hymn such as “O God, our help in ages past” (ELW 632) incorporates such thanks and hope as do many hymns contained in the Hope, Assurance section in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Appropriate hymns with a baptismal emphasis include “O blessed spring” (ELW 447), “Peace, to soothe our bitter woes” (ELW 381) or “When we are living” (ELW 639). Also consider singing a setting of “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace” as communion draws to a close or as a sending song. Having been united with God, having held Jesus in our hands at the table, we will depart from this table and this life in peace. In Evangelical Lutheran Worship, settings can be found within Holy Communion Settings 1 and 2 as well as #200–203, 313, and 440 (Luther’s setting).

November could be a time to consider how the centrality of baptism is present in your space. If you’ll be asking the assembly to remember their baptism, is the font in an accessible place and filled with warm water? If you’d like to connect the remembrance of saints with thanksgiving for those who have been baptized, can a table with candles be in close proximity to the font? If you are using a book of remembrance on All Saints Sunday, be sure it is possible to display it. Some congregations ask worshipers to bring in photos of their loved ones to be displayed. If you choose to do this, think about where and how this would work in your particular space.

To make another visual connection of endings and beginnings, find a place to display your funeral pall, giving folks the opportunity to see it and talk about its symbolism.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  All Saints Day can be an occasion to celebrate baptisms in addition to remembering those who have died. If you plan on observing a baptismal festival on this day, make plans to announce it well in advance so that preparations can be made.
  •  For All Saints Day (or the entire month of November) your plans may include providing a book of remembrance in which names of loved ones may be written and perhaps read aloud in worship. Make sure you have a book and candles on hand.
  •  Incorporate the names of those who have died into a baptismal remembrance or into the prayers of intercession on All Saints Sunday. Handbells or another bell/chime could accompany the reading of the names. Or prepare a sung litany. See Music Sourcebook for All Saints through Transfiguration (Augsburg Fortress, 2013) for guidance.
  •  If you will hold events in your congregation focused on death and dying, be sure to line up speakers and resources in advance. Consider using In Sure and Certain Hope: A Funeral Sourcebook (Augsburg Fortress, 2017).
  •  If your congregation provides a community meal on Thanksgiving, be sure to publicize well in advance in community newspapers, websites, or other locations in your community.
  •  Omit the Kyrie.
  •  Use the canticle of praise (“This is the feast”).
  •  Continue planning for Advent 2019.
  •  Begin publicizing the schedule of Advent and Christmas worship services.

From sundaysandseasons.com.

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