As I have gotten older, I find that I think more about what “the communion of saints” means in my daily life, not just on All Saints Sunday when we remember those who have died in the previous year. Instead, I find myself remembering the saints I have known; it could be a memory jogged by seeing a photograph or being with friends and recalling that someone who had been a dear part of the group has moved away. But thinking about the saints in this way alone is far too restrictive.
In the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that we believe in “the communion of saints” – that gathering of people, both living and dead, who have found their being in Christ. The Rev. Katie Shockley, a Methodist pastor, has stated the following:
When we gather in worship, we praise God with believers we cannot see. When we celebrate Holy Communion, we feast with past, present, and future disciples of Christ. We experience the communion of saints, the community of believers – living and dead. This faith community stretches beyond space and time. We commune with Christians around the world, believers who came before us, and believers who will come after us. We believe that the church is the communion of saints, and as a believer, you belong to the communion of saints.
Christians have described the communion of saints in a variety of ways. In the December 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic, the communion of saints is described as a “giant stadium of people, all of whom have run, or are running, a great race.” Perhaps we should also add those who will run the race in the future. In this image of a stadium, Catherine O’Connell-Cahill encourages us to imagine taking our place at the starting line and as we do so, “we are lifted up by the love and encouragement of all those who know well the challenges ahead of us and who have stayed to accompany us and cheer us on.” We must also remember that a saint is not someone who has been canonized by the church – it is you and me and all those who profess a faith in the living God.
In the Orthodox church, in which the purpose of Christian life is to attain theosis, a mystical union of humanity with God, the saints both past and present are a tangible part of worship and life. Several years ago, I attended a service at Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. It is a small congregation, worshiping in a building that was once a dreary warehouse. Upon entering the sanctuary, one’s senses are immediately bombarded with beauty. All the walls and ceilings are covered with holy images – most of them icons specifically written for this congregation. There are icons of saints of long ago as well as icons of members of the congregation. The gold in the icons shimmers in the candlelight. One feels a fluidity of time in which the veil between past, present and future does not exist. One cannot help but feel surrounded by, be a part of, and sustained by the communion of the saints.
The New Hampshire Council of Churches (NHCC) posted an article on its website regarding the understandings of its members regarding the meaning of the communion of saints The first statement is from Martin Luther’s “Large Catechism” in which Luther states that he believes “that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms.” As I read this, I could not help but smile and consider how aspirational this is – those who call themselves Lutherans have shattered into so many groups who are hardly of one mind. Yet, it is something for which we can strive – to agree in love as a part of the communion of saints.
The NHCC website also cites the Episcopal Church’s The Book of Common Prayer which states that “[t]he communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.” That succinct statement had a significant impact on me, particularly calling to mind those saints “whom we hurt.”
When we lived in Minnesota and Virginia, I had gardens at all our houses. In Minnesota, I worried most about planting only those perennials that were the hardiest. In Virginia, the growing conditions were so different – I had to be concerned about which plants could withstand the wilting sun and high humidity. Here, I have a raised garden bed for a few vegetables and herbs but also many pots with flowering plants. And although I do not recall doing this deliberately, it turns out that all the potted flowers were chosen because they remind me of someone.
My mother’s mother loved pansies, but my grandmother was a saint who I hurt deeply. These days, we would better understand her behavior as symptomatic of severe mental illness; then, having her around was a huge, mysterious, life-draining burden. I ignored her. I probably yelled at her. Most of all, her behavior scared me and I wished she would die. Yet, she was (and still is) a part of the glorious communion of saints. I know that when I lovingly tend those flowers, my grandmother and I are together, “bound together in Christ” as a part of that glorious communion of saints. And for that, I say, thanks be to God.e
Let us pray...
Dear Lord, we thank you for the communion of saints, bound together in Christ through all times and places, people we know and people who are unknown. Help us to love all members of that great communion, to encourage them and be supported by them, both now and through all time to come. Amen.