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Friends Forever – Communion of Saints
By the Rev. Lera Tyler
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In the early days of the Christian Church, it was the habit of followers of Christ to gather in the catacombs under Rome. The explanation that has come down is that this was in order to hide from the Roman persecutors. However, and more accurately, historians explain, Christians went into the tombs to celebrate with Christian martyrs buried there, especially on their anniversaries – to be in communion with the saints.
All of this seems rather ghoulish to our sensibilities. Bodies of our dead are removed quickly and the remains dealt with appropriately out-of-sight. Death is quietly hidden from view.
Most of us have become conditioned to believe that the dead are separated from us, that their souls and spirits — like their bodies – have been whisked to another place, hidden from our senses while our hearts and souls are still very much attached to theirs.
As part of our baptismal covenant, we say, “We believe in the communion of saints.” But do we believe that we are still in communion with the saints?
My parents and grandparents were thoroughly Southern, nonsensical, mainstream Protestants. The word saint for them was always lower case and used almost exclusively when quoting the Bible or when referring to a person of extraordinary forbearance and church attendance. Yet, the catacomb services of the early Church would not have seemed nearly as bizarre to them as they do to most of us.
In my 1950s childhood, we sometimes drove to mid-summer “picnics” held on the grounds of the churches and burying places of parents and grandparents. From mid-morning through late afternoon, the church would be filled with people fanning themselves while singing favorite hymns or listening to a variety of singing groups. Outside, under shady oaks and pines, the adults laid out long tables with fresh summer dishes. Distant cousins, childhood neighbors, and old friends were reunited, but these gatherings were just as importantly about being close to departed loved ones.
In the cemeteries next to the churches, relatives strolled, remembered, and wept. My aunt patted the ground near her aunt’s new grave and said, “I brought a blackberry cobbler and I made it just like you do.” My daddy and his brothers stood over graves and told stories of the old friends at their feet. Someone would point to a row of graves and tell how the flu epidemic of 1918 took all those people. Collectively, cousins, squatting above the almost-flattened mounds, worked out who was related to whom. A tall, city-clothed, Cadillac-driving man stood alone by two gravestones, in silence, eating fried chicken and crying. And all the while, the off-tune piano and accompanying voices continued singing what they called gospel music. And the cloud of unseen witnesses were understood to be not far away, just beyond the thin boundary that separates the living and the dead.
They were, I believe, comfortable with death and their moral limitations. Creation is filled with smells, sights, and sounds incomprehensible to human senses. My dog can smell infinitely better than I. Eagles can see infinitely better. Cats and barn owls can hear infinitely better. Limited as we are, we humans occasionally sense something beyond ourselves. Sometimes, though, we might feel the humming of the communion of saints, easing the way for a dying friend or loved one, warming up to welcome her into the eternal life we will share.
God, who created both heaven and earth, delights in both. The Spirit of God roams between the two, and through Christ all that is seen and unseen, heard and unheard, felt and unfelt, living and dead, hold together. The communion of saints is in the midst of all this holy glue.
Several years ago, I spent some time with my children in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The OldCityCemetery there, dating from colonial times, was just down the lane behind us. It actually looks like the foundations of a mansion that once had many rooms. A maze of ivy-covered stone walls divides groups of over 120 graves. Its deceased inhabitants were once families of shopkeepers and farmers, politicians and soldiers, doctors and adventurers. Almost a third of the graves belong to those whose names are now forgotten on earth. The undulating ground was, that April, covered in soft grass and bright dandelions. I spent many hours there with my grandson, watching him crawl among the graves. He would grab onto weather-worn tombstones and carefully pull up on markers that read: “Her Price Above Rubies” or “He hath Done What He Could.” He stood up and smiled at the lamb above the inscription: “Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven (11 months)” – a little boy he had already passed in age.
This memory is an apt metaphor for the communion we share with the departed dead. Rather than being far from us, the saints remain with us in some way that we can’t quite grasp. They hold us up in prayers as we hold them up in ours. The memory of them pulls us up, helps us stand upright on our own feet in the world around us and before God who grounds us.
The Rev. Lera Tyler is assistant priest at St. Thomas, San Antonio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
♦ The Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of the Communion of Saints, (in Latin, Communio Sanctorum) says, “In Christian theology, the communion of saints are those in fellowship and united to Jesus Christ in Baptism. The phrase is first found in the 5th-century version of the Apostles’ Creed – a statement of faith in Roman Catholic, Anglican and many Protestant churches. For more information visit this website: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/518477/communion-of-saints
♦ According to the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, the 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.”
♦ In “A Dictionary for Episcopalians,” by John N. Wall, the communion of saints is described as, “The doctrine describing the mystical union of the body of Christ, the church, and all Christians, living and dead. Here ‘saint’ is used in its original sense of any baptized Christian.”
♦ “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User-Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout, and Robert Boak Slocum, editors, states that the communion of saints is “The union and shared life of all Christians in Christ, including those who now live in the world and those whose mortal lives have ended.”
♦ The collect for All Saints’ Day states, “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 (BCP, p. 245).
♦ The communion of saints is at times a digital connection, in this day and age. Read the essay by Torey Lightcap on the Explore Faith website, and discover connections made with family and friends, or for business or social relationships, through electronic social networking. Go to: http://www.explorefaith.org/lifeissues/sorrow_and_grief/in_memoriam_and_in_grieving_digitally.php?ht=