Fr Billy Swan
‘They are all assembled in one temple and raise their shouts of joy to God in common; all at the same time read and meditate and contemplate the book of life; and they all refresh themselves communally at one and the same table. They take their rest together in the place of eternal repose, and there is no one who does anything on his own which can disturb or damage their common peace, obedience or order.
Such is the fellowship- the happiest and most joyous of fellowships- of the citizens of the realms above who live the common life, and we who are still on earth should follow their way of life by living the common life after their example’.
Baldwin of Canterbury
Each time we profess our faith with the Apostles’ Creed, we say that we believe in the ‘Communion of Saints’. This article of our faith is rich in beauty with the potential to bring so much meaning and enrichment to our lives.
Central to our faith in the communion of saints is the theology and spirituality of communion. The word ‘communion’ comes from the Greek word ‘koinonia’ which was the word used to describe the living relationship that God has called us to enjoy with Him in Christ and the new way that this effected our relationships with one another. In other words, our communion has both vertical and horizontal dimensions like the Lord’s cross that symbolises it.
Through Christ and in the Spirit, we are called into communion with God who wishes us to share his life. It is a communion of friendship, love, peace, forgiveness and a promise of enjoying the company of God forever. This communion describes a living relationship with God that is so strong that it has no end. Not even death will destroy it. Through Jesus, God has promised us that He will never abandon us and that nothing on earth can ever separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus (cf. Romans 8:39). The only thing that is possible to break this precious communion with God is human freedom. We remember that God can do all things bar one: force a human being to love Him in return. Only if we walk away from the life that He is offering or live in a spirit that is contrary to the life of God, can this communion with Him be broken. We can walk away but God never will for He cannot disown his own self.
On the other hand, if we remain in communion or relationship with God, we will inherit all he has promised in this life and in the next. Our communion with God brings us into the same communion with our neighbour and fellow Christian. Because of our communion with God through the same Jesus and in the same spirit, we share something very precious that is worth celebrating. Our common faith in the Lord brings us into closer contact and relationship. In the family of the Church, we support and care for one another as we make our journey through life.
In the letter to the Hebrews we read: ‘We have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven and to a judge who is God of all and to the spirits of the upright who have been made perfect’ (12:22-23).
It is the truly Good News. What it means for us who have lost husbands, wives, children, partners, relatives and friends is that even though they have gone from our sight, they are still in communion with us here on earth. In fact, they are closer to us than ever before. They are still in communion with God and they are still in communion with us. If we believe that our loved ones who have died are with God and that God is everywhere then we also believe that they are everywhere, especially with those whose company they loved here on earth. St. John Chrysostom once wrote something beautiful when he wrote that, ‘our loved ones are no longer where they were before; they are now wherever we are’.
By the fireside, at home in the kitchen where they were, there they still are. Out in the fields by the stream where they walked, there they still are. Wherever, whenever we remember them, pray for them, there they are. Wherever, whenever we praise God or come before Him, there they are too. Whenever I live in my life the values that they inspired in me, there is their spirit. When I pass on to my children the precious values that my parents gave to me, then my parents are present.
As this theology suggests, the communion of saints is composed of thousands of millions of people who have lived on earth in communion with God and whose lives continue with Him in the world to come. When our turn comes to pass through the gates of death, we will recognise in their company, the loved ones who have gone before us, professing their faith in God’s love as they did so. We will embrace them in a way that will bring great joy and emotion, a moment that we have been longing for since they left us in body, but not in spirit. At that great moment we will recognise them as having been with us all along albeit in a different way. There will be no need to explain the tears that we have shed for them, our loneliness, our pain, for they will have known it. They still walk with us along the road towards God and help prepare us for that day when we too will be called home by Him. In this way our weakness is greatly helped by their concern (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5). As he was dying, St. Dominic said to his brothers who surrounded him; ‘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’. As the dead help us so we too can help them by our prayers, our sacrifices and our continued love that we bear towards them.
The theology of the communion of the saints is the basis of the Church’s tradition of devotion to the saints. We all have our favourites for a variety of reasons. Many of them appeal to us because of their humanity, their struggle or because we recognise something of our own life in theirs. Perhaps we bear the name of our favourite saint. Whatever the reason, having devotion to a particular saint is very similar to having a soul friend or constant companion who now dwells in heaven and intercedes for us before God.
Like the rest of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, we look forward to spending eternity in their company. We in the Church are part of a communion of charity that will last forever, ‘For if we continue to love one another and join in praising the Most Holy Trinity, all of us who are children of God and form one family in Christ, we will be faithful to the deepest vocation of the Church’.
I conclude with a reflection entitled ‘Togetherness’, that we often hear at funeral Masses, perhaps best captures the good news of our faith that is the communion of saints:
‘Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used to. Put no difference into your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me. Let my name be the household name it always was. Let it be spoken without the shadow of a ghost in it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. What is death but a negligible accident. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight. All is well, nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before’.