Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sunday in the Octave of All Saints (4 November 2007)

Many years ago—more than three decades, actually—when my parents lived in a New Jersey suburb of New York City, and Brenda and I were visiting, we spent a large portion of one Saturday afternoon touring the vast Cathedral of St John the Divine on the upper west side. At one point we noticed a commemorative plaque in the floor that made reference to one or more of the saints. My mother, who knew that Brenda and I had then only recently become Episcopalians, curiously inquired as to what role the saints play in Anglican faith and worship and piety. I can’t remember precisely how I answered her, but it was a good question, and it’s still a good question. So, on this All Saints Day, let’s try and answer it.

In the creeds, we say we believe in “the communion of saints.” The Greek word that lies behind the word “communion” is koinonia. It has a very strong meaning. It denotes a very deep connection, a profound intimacy. This is the kind of bond there is between the saints.

But who are “saints”? Again, it’s time for a language lesson. The Greek and Latin words which lie behind the English word “saint” simply mean “holy.” The saints are “the holy ones.” But that word “holy” can throw us off, because you and I are apt to understand it as describing only those who are of outstanding moral character, the ultra-good. At its root, however, “holy” simply means “set apart” or “dedicated” to a particular purpose. In the New Testament, the word “saints” — or “holy ones” — became a euphemism for any and all Christians. In baptism, we, as Christians, have been set apart, dedicated to the particular purposes of glorifying God, following Christ, and bearing witness to him in the world. So there is a very real and important sense in which all of us who have been baptized are saints, whatever the current status of our moral and spiritual development is. This is the way the word is used in the New Testament.

As Christianity became two and three and four generations old, however, the word “saint,” without losing its general meaning, also took on a more focused meaning. These early Christians, because of state persecution, had to spend a good deal of their time in hiding. In the city of Rome, these hiding places were literally underground, in passageways known as the catacombs. They would celebrate the Eucharist in the catacombs and bury their dead in the catacombs. We know from the way these graves were decorated and inscribed that there was a deep devotion and rich prayer life centered around the faithful departed—first, loved ones who were actually known and remembered personally, and later, those who were not personally known, but who were remembered by the whole community because of their particular heroism or strength of witness or holiness of life. Special liturgies were held on the anniversary of their death, and the word “Saint” was put in front of their names in an official way. Later on, formal procedures evolved for deciding who would be put into this category.

During the Middles Ages, the number of Saints—and therefore Saints’ days—grew to the point where it was impossible for all of them to be observed in all places. So, in an effort not to leave anybody out, the Church decided to designate one day on which all the saints would be commemorated—hence, All Saints Day. This custom began in England and Northern Europe, where an already existing pagan holiday dedicated to the spirits of the dead was “baptized” and co-opted into the new Christian observance. (The same thing had already been done with Christmas, taking over the pagan winter solstice festival and making it the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.)

But . . . we digress. Let’s get away from history and back to theology. I’m going to offer you an image, a mental picture, that I hope will make it easier to understand the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. But remember that it’s the doctrine itself that’s important, not the image. If the image doesn’t work for you, it won’t hurt my feelings if you trash it. OK?

Imagine, if you will, a large mansion. This mansion represents the Church, and it includes all Christians who have ever lived. It has three stories. You and I, and every other Christian who is presently drawing breath and maintaining a temperature of around 98.6°—we all live on the first floor of this mansion. We make up what is called the Church Militant, the saints on earth. The word “militant” connotes the fact that we are in a battle—a battle against the world, the flesh, the devil, against disease and dysfunction and death, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places. As we sang in the opening hymn today, “We feebly struggle...” As we are engaged in this battle together, we have the privilege of supporting and encouraging and helping and praying for one another—those we live with and know intimately, and those who live halfway around the world and whom we have never met. We have the opportunity to experience and practice koinonia—close fellowship and communion—with other Christians in this world. This is an important instance of the communion of saints. It is in the context of this mutual struggle that we actually become what we are—that is, holy. In the daily grind of life’s joys and sorrows, through faithfully taking up our cross, we assume the character and likeness of Jesus, who is our model and example.

What we don’t know, however, is when death will come, and how far along in that process of becoming holy, of becoming like Jesus, we will be when that moment arrives. This is where the second floor of the mansion comes into play. The souls on the second floor make up what is known as the Church Expectant. If the first floor is a battlefield, the second floor is a hospital ward. It is populated by those who are still very much in the process of having their holiness perfected. It is a place of intensive treatment and therapeutic healing, administered by a very loving physician. Just as we prayed for these people when they were on the first floor, we can still pray for the members of the Church Expectant. They would appreciate our prayers on their behalf, I’m sure, because, while their reservations for a third floor apartment are being held for them, they need to get well before they can move upstairs. They have no complaints about the care they’re getting in the hospital, but they’re eager to move on, and anything we can do, through prayer, to hasten that process along, is to their benefit. And they can certainly also still pray for us. Why should their departure from the first floor deprive them of that privilege which they enjoyed while they were here?

The third floor, as you can probably surmise, is the ultimate destination for everybody within the mansion. The residents of the third floor make up the Church Triumphant. These are the ones we sang about right after “We feebly struggle ... they in glory shine.” The image of Christ has been perfectly restored in them. The distortion and damage of sin has been completely repaired. They are holy, not only because they have been set apart and dedicated, but because they, through grace, have been delivered from every taint of sin. The Church Triumphant truly has no further need of our prayers on their behalf, but we certainly have continuing need of their prayers on our behalf, and it has been the custom of the Church Militant, since earliest times, when gathered for worship, to invoke the prayers of the Church Triumphant. Strictly speaking, we do not pray to the Saints, but we ask them to pray for us. Are their prayers more effective than the prayers of “saints on earth”? We can certainly speculate that they might be, given the advanced state of their holiness. But more important than effectiveness, I think, is the realization of our essential unity with them. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.” It is in this awareness that we sense the true koinonia of the saints, the “one communion and fellowship” of which today’s Collect speaks.

The Church Militant on earth—where we pray for one another, the Church Expectant in Paradise—where we pray for them and they pray for us, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven—where they pray for us; this makes up the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the communion of saints into which we have been baptized, and which we celebrate on this feast of All Saints. “The Lord is glorious in his saints: Come, let us adore him.” Amen.

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