The Communion of saints
Like many Christians, we recite the Apostle’s Creed in our parish every Sunday. I love the Creed because I feel that in some mystical way it connects me to generations of believers who have gone before. I, too, am a custodian of ‘the faith of the church’ that was passed on by the original apostles.
There is a line in the Creed that I find very meaningful in this present crisis: “I believe … in the communion of saints.” This is obviously a reference to the saints who are gathered on Sunday morning to celebrate the Eucharist — in other words, my fellow church members who are reciting the Creed with me. But does it have a deeper meaning than that?
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul said:
“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph 3.14-15).
There is one family of God, part of which is in heaven and part of which is on earth. One family — separated by a quantum field that we scarcely understand — separated but not divided. Indeed the phrase, “the communion of saints”, does not just denote the communion of the church on earth, but more importantly, the communion of the church of heaven and earth.
The writer to the Hebrews alludes to the connection between heaven and earth in chapter twelve:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12.1)
The writer likens the Christian life to a marathon, and the Old Testament heroes of faith to witnesses or spectators. Our job is to keep our eyes on Jesus and to finish the race; their job is to cheer us on when we feel like giving up. Charles B. Williams puts it this way: “As we have so vast a crowd of spectators in the grandstands, let us throw off every impediment and the sin that easily entangles our feet, and run with endurance the race for which we are entered.”
In Dr Marvin Vincent’s opinion, “Witnesses does not mean spectators, but those who have borne witness to the truth, as those enumerated in ch. xi. Yet the idea of spectators is implied, and is really the principal idea. The writer’s picture is that of an arena in which the Christians whom he addresses are contending in a race, while the vast host of the heroes of faith who, after having borne witness to the truth, have entered into their heavenly rest, watches the contest from the encircling tiers of the arena, compassing and overhanging it like a cloud, filled with lively interest and sympathy, and lending heavenly aid.” (Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol IV, p 536: Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan).
The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say, “You (the church on earth) have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb 12.22-24). Indeed, as Jacob discovered, there is an invisible and indelible connection between heaven and earth (Gen 28.12).
I am very aware that the saints in heaven (including my own mother and father) are watching the earth convulsing in pain, and are interceding before the throne of God for the healing of the nations. The Book of Revelation gives us an insight into the connection between the prayers of the saints in heaven, and the activity of the Spirit of God on earth (Rev 8.3-5). On one occasion, the martyrs in heaven are heard crying out to the Lord to judge and avenge their blood on those dwell on the earth (Rev 6.9-10). Make no mistake: in some way and to some degree, the saints in heaven are mindful of what is taking place on earth and are interceding for the purposes of God to be fulfilled.
One of my favourite quotes is by St. Dominic of Osma, founder of the Dominican order. As he lay dying, Dominic reportedly said to his brothers, “Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.” Likewise, the ‘little flower of Jesus’, St Thérèse of Lisieux, said, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”
Communion in intercession
There is also a communion with the saints on earth that transcends time and space. I experienced this some years ago when I was teaching at a pastors’ conference in Iloilo City in the Philippines. The day I arrived the city was hit by a super typhoon. Parts of the city were completely flattened. The hotel I was staying in was flooded. Telephone communications were disrupted. The airport runway was damaged and planes were unable to land. I was stranded, all alone, and quite terrified. And I kept hearing a voice in my head saying, “You’ll never see your wife and children again. You’ll never get out of here alive.”
The only thing I could do was pray, and I prayed like my life depended on it. One night as I was interceding, I had a mystical, almost out-of-body experience. I felt my spirit ascending to the throne and joining with the multitudes of redeemed human beings who were praising and worshipping the Almighty God. At the same time I was aware that my friend and mentor, Rev. Ruth Heflin from Jerusalem, Israel, was also approaching the throne ‘from the other side’ as it were, and joining in the chorus of intercession and thanksgiving. I had the experience of ‘meeting’ Ruth, so to speak, at the throne. It was the spiritual equivalent of an internet chat room or a virtual conference centre.
If that sounds a little far-fetched to you, then consider this: In an April 3rd article published in Christianity Today, Jayson Casper highlights the plight of Christians who are unable to celebrate Easter services because of COVID-19 restrictions. He compares it to the experience of Christians in the Middle East who have been unable to worship together due to political tyranny and religious persecution.
He quotes Gregory Mansour, the Maronite bishop of Brooklyn, NY, whose clerical colleagues in Lebanon received thousands of ISIS-fleeing Christians from Syria and Iraq. “There was a deliberate desire to obliterate churches, hymnals, prayers, and people” said Mansour. “The only thing we had left was a spiritual communion.”
Casper also cites Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox archbishop of London. When asked how he is coping in isolation, he replied, “I am a monk, I’ll be fine.” Monasticism is the characteristic mark of Coptic spirituality and Coptic Orthodox bishops are drawn exclusively from the ranks of monks. But in order for monastic practice to be spiritually liberating, one must remember two things: “I am not alone, I am with God,” and even in isolation, “I am gathered in communion with others.”
Indeed, it is the communion of intercession that binds the universal Body of Christ together, both in heaven and on earth. At this time of crisis and enforced isolation, let us discover the secret of gathering together ‘in the Spirit’ in the name and power of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 5.4). Although we may be temporarily separated from the ones we love, like John on the Isle of Patmos we can still be ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day’, and get caught up in the paean of heaven (Rev 1.9-10; 4.1-11).
Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!