Homily: “On Communion of the Saints”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of All Saints, 2018.

Our Collect speaks of God having knit together His elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of Christ. All of those words are important, are meaningful and quite significant, and what they direct us to is not only a good and sound prayer on this solemn feast of All Saints, but the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints which is spoken of and confessed in the Apostles’ Creed, which captures the baptismal faith of the Church, originally used, and still used, on the occasions of people received the Sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of incorporation into Christ’s Body.

I want to elaborate on those words of the Collect for All Saints Day, and do so with all of us sharing an image in our minds as we proceed. That image is of the eleven disciples gathering in the Upper Room along with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and other women. They did so on the heels of the Ascension of Jesus, and were in the Upper Room for nine days, devoting themselves with one accord to prayer—the three dimensions of total prayer, what is called the threefold Regula: daily set-prayer like our daily Offices, the Eucharist undoubtedly in its original Passover meal context, and prayer of fellowship through sharing of experiences, stories, love for each other and reflections on the Bible. For those of us who might benefit from a mental picture of what “Communion of the Saints” means, this is it. There may not have been a larger gathering in one place of Saints in their somatic bodies around what was probably some kind of makeshift Altar embracing the threefold Regula ever in the history of the Church.

What was it like to be there? If we were flies on the wall—or better, if we were among the unnamed additional dozens of disciples (because Saint Luke tells us that in the Upper Room were about a hundred and twenty), what would it feel like to be present with them, participating in this worship, this communion of holy people with holy things? People talk about the mystery and awe of stepping into holy places in our world—the Grand Canyon, Canterbury Cathedral, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Wrigley Field—would not stepping into the Upper Room as a Christian at least match those experiences, if not far outpace them? Christ crucified and resurrected is present through daily Offices, present through the Eucharist, present through devotion to fellowship according to the Sacred Scriptures!

To speak of God having knit together His elect speaks immediately to the Upper Room. This is because each person present in the Upper Room was called by God to follow Him. God knits His people together through His calling, His “yarn” being the daily prayer, Eucharist, and devotion. And to speak of God knitting hearkens us to the action of knitting spoken of in Psalm 139. The 1979 translation reads, speaking of God: “For You Yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” The Psalmist goes on to add, “I will thank you because I was marvelously made.” The Communion of Saints were knit together in the womb of the Mary, because in her womb is Jesus and the Saints, and the baptized, are members of His Body.

I mentioned that the “yarn” used by God in knitting is the threefold pattern of total prayer, and within that is the dimension of devotion—what Saint Luke describes as the apostles teaching and fellowship. And this brings up the aspect of our relationship with the Saints called “intercession.” We ask the Saints to pray for us. We also ask the faithful departed to pray for us. Why do we do this?

We do this guided by the doctrine of the Church. As Saint Paul wrote to the church of Rome: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” The Saints, by virtue of their incorporating into the Body of Christ and their supreme growth in holiness according, for example, to the attributes of holiness taught by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, are not only alive—because all who die in Christ are alive—but are part of the company of heaven, having passed through the purgation of the Paradise, the intermediate state. Being in the company of heaven means they are face to face with God, and pray for us because God Himself prays for us. It is what God does, and so it is what the Saints do, themselves utterly filled by God and embodying in heaven a completely God-centered existence.

And we see here again how helpful the image of the disciples gathered in the Upper Room can be for our understanding of the Communion of Saints. Just as the Eleven along with Mary and the women were gathered in prayer together in the Upper Room, they are also gathered in prayer together in heaven—the “Upper” Upper Room. And we see images throughout Church history where heaven is depicted as the saints all gathered around an Altar.

So let us, brothers and sisters on this central feast day of the Church, understand clearly that the Church is not defined as a matter of positions and organization, but on the basis of her worship of God: as a community at one table around the risen Christ, who gathers and unites us from everywhere. And the Communion of Saints means that this community extends beyond the frontier of death, binding together all those who have received the one Spirit, and His one Body,  and His one life-giving power.[1]

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[1] This paragraph adapts teaching from Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, III.1.