"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Friday, November 2, 2012

I Believe in the Communion of Saints

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.     ~Hebrews 11:39-12:2

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.
~Collect for All Saints' Day

As Christians, we do not pilgrimage through this world alone.  Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews implies that we cannot walk alone.  "Only together with us would they be made perfect."  We are all bound together, saints on earth and in heaven; ours is not a gospel of rugged individualism, far from it.  It is in Christ that we find true freedom, yet paradoxically this new life is one in which we are bound, not only to Christ, but to one another.  We cannot separate ourselves from those saints who have gone before us, even if we would sometimes wish to do so.

On All Saints' Day, we do more than simply remember those saints of old.  To sit and "remember"  someone (in the popular understanding of the word) may indeed be very edifying, but one does not commune with another by simply thinking about them.  On All Saints' Day, the Church on earth is called to remember the reality of this true communion, this fellowship, which we are prone to neglect because it extends beyond our limits of time and space.  This does not make it any less real; indeed, we might say it makes it more real.  We are "bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise," as the catechism in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us.

The writer to the Hebrews continues to expound this truth with the famous words about the "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us.  In one sense, we are not the primary actors here; it is they, the saints who have gone before us, who are watching us, encouraging us, and aiding us by their intercession, we who have still our race to run and so need the assistance.  Incidentally, I increasingly find odd the Protestant antipathy towards praying for the intercession of the saints.  Yes, prayers to the saints can be overemphasized to the point of distraction and even harm (we must remember to "fix our eyes on Jesus"), and I think the Protestant stance is ultimately a reactionary one against such overemphasis.  But unless one is inclined to deny the very concept of the communion of saints (which would be odd, indeed), how is asking for the intercession of the saints in heaven so different from asking for the intercession of my brothers and sisters now on earth?  Well, in one respect at least, it is different: we might logically expect the prayers of those who "are before the throne of God" to be particularly efficacious.

The reality of the communion of all saints of the Church is beautifully summed up in the following prayer, one of the collects "Of a Saint" from The Book of Common Prayer.  It draws heavily on the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews.      Peace.

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy.  We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.   

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