Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking about saints lately, there was moment during our Ash Wednesday worship this morning when I noticed something in the liturgy that I had never thought about before:
Most holy and merciful Father,
we confess to you, to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
Confessing our sins and offences to God, I readily understand, as we do that as Anglicans whenever we worship.
Confessing our sins and offences to one another, I can understand, as part of being part of the community of the church is a willingness to seek forgiveness and to forgive for the inevitable offences that arise when we live together.
Confessing our sins and offences to the “saints in heaven” however is something that I had never much thought about. Why would the saints need our confession? Why would they need to forgive us?
In Revelation, St. John describes seeing “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”, worshipping Jesus, who has ‘guide[d] them to springs to the water and life” and ‘wipe[d] away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7.9-17).
This passage reminds us that we as the church temporal live our allotted time on earth in the fellowship, or communion, of the saints who have gone before us and who are know blessed to be in the company of God. This fellowship includes all those whose names and acts are known to us (even via Lent Madness!) and those humble saints whose names are remembered only by God, but who are just as loved by God.
At our bible study today, someone asked if we could disappoint the saints in heaven or “let down the team” if we fall short in our earthly Christian lives, as we inevitably will, being human. I think it’s more helpful to be reminded of the passage in Hebrews, that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on and encourage us as we run our own spiritual races.
Another way to think of the communion of saints is provided in a lovely recent essay by Peter Mommsen (https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/culture-of-life/yearning-for-roots) . Writing on our fascination with genealogies and ancestry, Mommsen notes even those of us with family trees to research find that within a few generations, our ancestors are merely strangers, whose genetics blur into the vast pool of human DNA.
In contrast, the Bible’s insistence on genealogies, all those “begats”, including the Davidic bloodline of which Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph is part, reminds us that while biological kinship is important to God, far more important than the “transmission of genes” is the “grand intergenerational story into which Jesus was born, the story of God’s covenant with Israel, of sin and exile, and of the promise of redemption”. In this family, anyone who seeks to do the will of Jesus is our kin.
As Mommsen concludes, “In Christian teaching, this redefined family is known by another name: the communio sanctorum, the fellowship of saints. In this great intergenerational family, we are linked by a bond of brotherhood and sisterhood to believers from every era of the human story, past, present, and yet to be born”.
Thus, the stories that we read about as we play Lent Madness are really our family stories, stories of our ancestors, But, unlike a human genealogy such as we might get from ancestry.com, these ancestors exist in the eternal present of God, they see us, and they cheer us on to our own finish lines, when we shall join their blessed company.
What a lovely way to think about Lent Madness!
Blessings this day, Michael