Do you believe in the Communion of Saints?
All Saints' Day: 1st November, 2016
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Rev.7:2-4,9-14; Ps 24; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Matt 5:1-12a
Do you believe in the Communion of Saints? I must say, I do. Earlier in our liturgy, when leading into the confession, as the Deacon for the Mass, I proclaimed: "We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses." I believe that too.
"I see dead people" was the catch-phrase from the Bruce Willis film "Sixth Sense." I wouldn't go quite that far; I am not a spiritualist. But without a doubt, on a number of occasions, the presence of those who have gone before us has become palpable for me. And I doubt if I'm the only one at Mass this evening who has had such an experience.
John the Elder, in his great vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, describes so beautifully this invisible reality, the cloud of witnesses, the Communion of Saints (7:9-10):
I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'
This is a great truth of our faith; the heavenly host, all saints and all souls, caught up within the mystery and the majesty of God's love. And it is a great comfort for many of us, as we face the death of a loved one, and as we face the reality of our own mortality.
I must say, however, I don't talk too much in this way outside Christian circles; and I am even a little careful in the church. As less and less people believe in God, the reality of the Spirit, and the reality of life beyond death becomes more and more the realm of film, or fantasy, or madness.
In my last parish I married a couple, and the bride's grandparents were from Kiribati. She was born in New Zealand, and had never visited this tiny Pacific Island Nation, so they planned a honeymoon there. When they returned, we met up for a coffee, and they told me about their trip. The standout experience for them was the first night they arrived. They had been walking along the beach and night fell. Making their way back to the family home, through the palms, in the star-lit darkness, they became profoundly aware of the presence of the ancestors. They were walking with them, quite literally; they were as real as the aunties and uncles who greeted them at the airport. It was frightening at first, but then a profound sense of love and warmth surrounded them, like a blanket. They described it afterwards as like being hugged by God.
A theme within Celtic Christianity is that of the "thin place." My newly-wed friends found a thin place that night; for Celtic Christians Iona was a thin place; Patmos was a thin place for John the Elder; this beautiful historic church of St Peter that has been entrusted to our care is a thin place here in Melbourne. The mystic, Thomas Merton, said this about such experiences (cited in Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 155):
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes ....
Thin places are places where the two realities of heaven and earth meet. They can be geographical, tied to place, but they can also be interior, even secular. A hike in the bush, beautiful music, poetry, literature, film, dance, can lift us to the heavens, or draw the heavens to earth.
It is a much harder path, but even suffering, illness, or grief can generate a thin place where God dwells alongside us. This truth lies at the heart of the Beatitudes:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The one with a pure heart, the peace-maker, the one facing persecution, those who are poor in spirit, those in grief, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness; these are the ones who are blessed; these are the ones who find themselves in thin places; these are the ones whose hearts are open to God and open to their neighbour.
We are in a thin place this night of All Saints. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses; those who have travelled the road ahead of us; those who have inspired us to follow the way, even the painful and dangerous way of the cross.
- But lo! there breaks, a yet more glorious day;
- The Saints triumphant rise in bright array:
- The King of glory passes on his way.
- Alleluya! Alleluya!
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.