November, to me, is always one of the hardest months of the year. When I think of November I think of barren trees, cold air, grey skies, and frost. It’s really winter now, but without the fun part because there usually isn’t enough snow yet to play in. In the church we begin November with All Saints Day, and in the culture we continue with Armistice Day – both of which have us remembering those who have gone before and are now at rest with God. In 2023 November seems heavy with grief, fear, and anger as wars continue to rage. It’s a month truly “surrounded by evil and bordered by death” as the liturgy says.
Yet I’m always grateful for November, especially the celebration of All Saints that starts the month. It is a little Easter, given to us about halfway around the calendar year from the Day of the Resurrection, at exactly this deathly time, to remind us that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again” – and that those who have died in the Lord will also rise with him. On this day we remember all the saints, especially those who are closest to us, who have borne witness by their lives to the grace and mercy of God. They have shown us, in their own modest way, the path of life; and we remember them, as “simultaneously saints and sinners,” with gratitude. We try to follow in our own way the steps they trod because they in turn were following the way that Christ led.
This year, apropos to the season, I’ve been a powerful book by the historian, biblical theologian, and bishop of the Church of England, N. T. Wright, called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. The subtitle is actually a little misleading; this is not a revisionist work of novel theology but a call for a return to historic and (small-O) orthodox Christian teachings about the nature of the resurrection and the basis for hope and action in this world. Wright says, “This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?”
In answer to the first question, Wright argues strenuously that Christians have got it wrong when they think of life after death as the release of the soul from the body, to dwell finally with Jesus and all the saints in a disembodied, spiritual heaven. Yet it is an extraordinarily common way of thinking that has been around for a long time, going right back to the Middle Ages. The goal of the Christian life has often been presented as suffering through “this vale of tears” until the time when earthly existence can be cast off forever, to enjoy a spiritual life in eternity with God in heaven. But, Wright says, this is not how the first Christians thought. What they believed was that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, and that the general resurrection of the body was on its way. Those who had died in the meantime might sleep in paradise - but this is a temporary resting place until such time as the dead are granted new bodies in the renewed creation.
The difference between the conventional belief in a life after death—but for the soul only since all of the physical world will be done away with—and the Christian confession of the resurrection of the body in a renewed physical creation… is profound. The first belief leads to a kind of indifference about what happens to the present earth—because why bother since it is all going to be destroyed anyway? The second belief leads to a deep love of this creation which suffers in the present but is one day going to be renewed by God, ourselves included. Christian hope for the future, says Wright, is in the resurrection of the body, and this gives rise to an energetic hope for change, renewal, and transformation of the present world.
The hope of the resurrection transforms November, for me, into a month that has something in the nature of a sacrament - a sign of God’s promise. November represents creation that “waits with eager longing” for redemption, creation that “has been groaning in labour pains until now.” And what is creation so looking forward to? For “the glory about to be revealed to us… who have the first fruits of the Spirit” - the glory of the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:18-23) So even as nature enters its long hibernation I have hope that spring will come, and I am reminded that spring will also come to our souls and bodies in the resurrection.