What Is the Communion of Saints?

November 5, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Ephesians 1:11-23

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Eternal rest, give to them, O Lord.

Our worship this morning is built around Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. A Requiem is a funeral Mass, named for the first Latin words of the Roman Catholic rite for the dead, asking that God grant eternal rest for their souls.

Protestants do not pray for the dead. We believe they’ve been welcomed into eternity and have no need for our assistance in that regard. We should not miss the irony, however, that mere days after celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation we’re turning to Catholicism for the music in our worship this morning.  Having just celebrated our break from them, here we are falling back on the Catholics!

But, in fact, there may be no liturgical music more suited than a Requiem for Westminster’s All Saints’ Day Sunday worship, when we read the names of those of our community to whom we bade farewell in the last year.

Maurice Duruflé composed his Requiem in France. He began it during the Second World War in occupied France, and concluded it shortly after the end of the war, only months following the death of his father, which affected him greatly. The piece is dedicated his father. Duruflé’s Requiem, known for its use of Gregorian chant – listen closely and you will hear the chant in both the organ and the sounds of the choir – is but one of more than 2,000 different compositions putting the ancient Roman Mass for the dead to music.

We recently attended the wake for a neighbor from a large Irish Catholic family – very large, very Irish, very Catholic. During the prayer service the priest spoke in front of the open casket and then he did something we would never do here. He turned the mic over to anyone among the 200-300 people there who wanted to say something.

That’s not the way we tend to do things at Westminster. The potential to lose control would be too great.

Well, it bordered on raucous at times. Stories and humor, tears and tributes, affection and love came pouring out from those gathered. We laughed and cried together for more than an hour. It all took place in front of the deceased. It was quite a remarkable time of sharing. When we got into the car to leave I turned to Beth and said, “Well, that was fun!” – not what we would typically say on such an occasion. It was as if the gathering had taken place in the presence of the deceased; that somehow he was there.

That’s not a Protestant sensibility.

Catholics generally, and the Irish specifically, deal more openly and more thoroughly with death than we Protestants. We tend to be quieter and more reserved in our grief, intent on maintaining decorum and dignity at all costs. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it is different from how others treat death.

I remember a memorial service in our sanctuary a long time ago where a person who spoke pulled out a blinking neon moose head he had hidden before the service. Needless to say we were, well, surprised, as it ran against “our way” of marking death, but it illustrated something about the deceased, who probably enjoyed the moose’s appearance.

Years ago I attended a Memorial Mass in a Catholic Cathedral during a time of conflict and war in Central America. Throughout the Mass, names of those who had lost their lives were read aloud. As each name was said, the congregation responded by shouting in Spanish, Presente, refusing to let go of the one who had died, pushing back against the finality of death. They were still with us. Presente.

Such a response to death is not that uncommon. According to the Pew Research Center,

“Nearly 20% of Americans believe they have ‘seen or been in the presence of’ a wandering soul. Nearly one-third report that ‘they have felt in touch with someone who has already died.’”

(NY Times, 10/29/17; How We Find Our Way to the Dead, by Peter Manseau)

When I was a pastor in San Francisco, Chinese-American church members went once a year to the cemetery to commune with their departed loved ones. They were taking part in the Chinese custom of Xing Ming [Ching Ming], or “sweeping the grave,” an annual visit to the tombs of relatives to care for the grave, visit with the deceased, and feast with them, often lasting all day long, there, at the graveside in the cemetery.

Those of us in the historic Protestant churches of the West  – Westminster-type churches – can find it hard to allow for the presence of a departed loved one. We don’t pray for them or speak to them. We don’t ask for the repose of their souls. It’s as if we’re supposed to grieve and move on.

But in our theology there’s room for another way. Rather than leave our loved ones behind, we can find ourselves in a kind of on-going encounter with them.

We close our worship this morning singing For All the Saints. Listen closely to the third verse:

“Oh blessed communion; fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.
Yet, all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The poet imagines a divine fellowship, a blessed communion, in which those on earth and those in heaven are united as one. We feebly struggle. They in glory shine. Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. The line in the hymn is an interpretation of an ancient phrase of the church referring to the “communion of saints.” Those words first appeared in the 4th century, and slowly worked their way over succeeding centuries into the formalized version of the Apostles’ Creed we use today. You remember how it ends:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints

The communion of saints. We believe in that.

Protestants shy away from the use of the word saint. It conjures up a hierarchy of believers, some of whom are more blessed than others. But that’s not a biblical view of saints. We see that in the letter to the church in Ephesus we heard read this morning, where the local believers are repeatedly referred to as saints.  The Greek here is hagios, and it means “sacred, or holy” – those who are different by virtue of their relationship with God. In other words, believers. The saints in Ephesus. Church members. The saints in Corinth. Christians. All of us.

Saints are made holy by being heirs – to use the language of the letter – of the grace of God, not by anything they do. The church itself, as Ephesians says, is the inheritance of God’s love. We are the inheritance o God’s love, passed along from believer to believer, from saint to saint, across the ages.

This week Pope Francis on All Saints’ Day brought saints down to earth.  They are not, he said, “perfect models, but are people whose lives God has crossed.”

That sounds like the definition found in the letter to Ephesus and other letters in the newer testament, not the description of flawless, enshrined individuals. Saints, the pope said, “Let the gentle light of God pass through. This is the purpose of life, even for us.”


The purpose of life is to let the gentle light of God pass through us. That gentle light burns in every one of us, however imperfectly. Call it the sainthood of all believers.

The communion of saints, then, is the community of God’s people in this life and the next, the life to come; the mystical spiritual solidarity that exists between the living and the dead, the fellowship divine convened by the very God of love. Who comprises that fellowship? For starters, look at the list on the bulletin cover today. See the names there of the saints who have gone before. Think back over years past, and the list gets longer. Good friends. Church members. Presente. Parents. Siblings. Presente. Children. Grandchildren. Presente.

At one point in the film Victoria and Abdul, as the Queen nears death, she refers to heaven as “the banquet hall of eternity.” It’s a phrase found on one of the tombs in the Taj Mahal in India. Feasting with the dead, it turns out, is common to many cultures. Our Irish Catholic neighbors, who partied for two days after the death of the family patriarch, imagined him being there, enjoying that reverie with them.

Why not us? Why not our loved ones who have gone before? Why not now, in this sacred meal?

On this All Saints’ Day, as we gather at the table to the sounds of the great Requiem Mass, by the lower of God’s love we know in Jesus Christ we join with those present in body and those present in spirit, and we become the communion of saints in this holy sanctuary, this banquet hall of eternity.

Thanks be to God.


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