10 March 2013

The Communion of the Saints

I don't think of myself as morbid but I can recall with a strong sense of honor and respect worshiping at St Helen's Bishopsgate in London in December 2001. What brought St Helen's to mind this Lord's Day were some words from Robert Louis Wilken's The First Thousand Years (Yale 2012), his so-far superb account of, well, the first one thousand years of Christianity.

In the chapter titled "Constructing a Catacomb" Wilken observes that "though the narrow tunnels where the dead slept were a domain of sadness and tears, in the tiny chapels the faithful could celebrate the Eucharist in the presence of the precious remains of loved one and friends, martyrs and bishops." Neither death nor the remains of the dead were as separated from the living as in today's sanitized world. More than reminding the worshipers of their mortality, "the dead remained very much alive for the early Christians." The "communio sanctorum" was not limited to the folks clapping their hands in the theater seats behind you but was a lived reality. Hardly conducive to contemporary marketing a culture of perpetual youth.

The culture of the early Christians was not limited to the present or those presently alive. Christians did not hide among the catacombs to worship but freely chose to do so and in so doing "created for the first time a Christian space that bound the community together over time, knitting the tremulous present to the grander past." In other words, space as a social construct and, with the early Christians, a very specific sort of construct, one that forged "solid and stable feelings through collective memory." These Christians understood themselves not merely intellectually but spatially and emotionally to be part of something far more capacious than their immediate world. In the catacombs the past--memory--was joined to the present--love--and directed toward the future--hope: the resurrection of the dead.

St Helen's encompassed the tombs of many of its long-deceased members (and their families). Worshiping there brought home to me the reality of the communion of the saints more affectively than many a sermon. An appropriate response on this Lord's Day as I recall the reality of the passing of my parents, parents-in-law, and ancestors known and unknown and anticipate their (and my) full-bodied resumption of the worship of the One who has gone before.

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