Communio Sanctorum

Nov 1, 2014

Thy glorious household stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto Thee.

George Herbert, “Affliction” (I)

 When I was a child, my family usually attended church on New Year’s Eve, and during the service the pastor or an elder would read the “necrology”—the list of those from the congregation who had died in the last year. It was a way of taking stock, marking the passage of time, meditating on the reality that “Hours and days and years and ages swift as moving shadows flee,” to quote a somber hymn we would sometimes sing. I also seem to recall that babies baptized that year were duly accounted for, although their names seemed to weigh feather-light when read against the gravity of the saints departed.

This Sunday evening, my church will hold an All Saints’ Day service. Several of us remarked at a worship committee meeting how we rather cherished that old-fashioned practice of reading the necrology, but since no one was especially interested in attending, let alone planning, a New Year’s Eve service, we decided to shift this practice to All Saint’s Day—which we all agreed was a more fitting occasion for it anyway. At our service, I am hoping we will also sing “For All the Saints,” so that the accounting of our losses will dissolve into that triumphant tune and those resolute words about saints finishing their well-fought fight, resting from their labors, cheering us on with cloud-of-witnesses enthusiasm.

That’s the communion of saints, after all, yes? Or at least, that’s how we often think of it on All Saints’ Day: our connection, across the great chasm, with those who have shared in the body of Christ and who have gone before us. As we think of those saints, we look anew at the ordinary faces around us and recognize saints-in-the-making. We feel our connection to one another on the pilgrim way, the communion that comforts us as we “feebly struggle.” Communio sanctorum, says the Latin of the Apostle’s Creed, Original Edition: communion of holy people.

The church has always, from the beginning, emphasized that the communion of saints is not merely about pleasant human connections because we are like-minded or belong to the same club or vote the same way. Instead, communion of the saints flows from our communion in Christ. We are holy people, not perfect people, set apart and united in Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism renders this succinctly:

Lord’s Day 21
55 Q. What do you understand by “the communion of the saints”?
First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.

What gifts? Footnotes to passages in Romans and Corinthians point abbreviatedly to salvation and the gifts of the Spirit. Then the catechism, characteristically, makes a quick turn into the duties implied by this communion:

Second, that each member
should consider it a duty
to use these gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.

Sharing the benefits of Christ with one another was not an idea new to the Reformation. It goes back to the early fathers in their reflections on communio sanctorum, and is richly accounted for in contemporary Roman Catholic reflections on the communion of saints.

However, there’s another possible meaning to communio sanctorum that I had never heard of until this week. The Latin word sanctorum is a genitive that can be either masculine or neuter and thus mean either of holy people or of holy things. Better yet: both.

We are the holy people who share the holy things.

Naturally, Roman Catholic thought emphasizes the sacraments here. The holy things are primarily the bread and wine. Perhaps the muting of this thing-oriented emphasis in Reformed circles goes all the way back to Reformation distancing from Catholic understanding of the sacraments.

This reflection from the Institutes on the communion of the saints, for example, focuses on apprehension and feeling:

In the very term communion there is great consolation; because, while we are assured that everything which God bestows on his members belongs to us, all the blessings conferred upon them confirm our hope. But in order to embrace the unity of the Church in this manner, it is not necessary, as I have observed, to see it with our eyes, or feel it with our hands. Nay, rather from its being placed in faith, we are reminded that our thoughts are to dwell upon it, as much when it escapes our perception as when it openly appears. Nor is our faith the worse for apprehending what is unknown, since we are not enjoined here to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate (this belongs not to us, but to God only), but to feel firmly assured in our minds, that all those who, by the mercy of God the Father, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, have become partakers with Christ, are set apart as the proper and peculiar possession of God, and that as we are of the number, we are also partakers of this great grace. (Book 4.1.3, emphasis added)

(Election-haters, take note of the comment that we have no business trying to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate!)

I have to disagree with Calvin’s assertion that we do not have to embrace this communion with our eyes and hands. I understand that Calvin is championing the church invisible over against the corruptions of Rome, etc. Be assured of your inclusion in the company of saints, he is saying; it’s not about the rituals. But 500 years out, perhaps it is safe again to recognize that our communion is made manifest in the things, and it’s all right to love them and derive comfort from them.

The stuff of our life together—the bread and wine, the water, the Bible, the cross—these are the holy things through which Christ comes to us, through which our communion in Christ is practiced, received, made real. Faith is in the mind and heart, but we are creatures of dust. We need to taste and see and hear, too.

Calvin wishes that our understanding, our apprehension of the communion of saints might bring us consolation. Of course. Anyone who has attended a good Christian funeral will testify that it does. But we experience that consolation in the tangibles: the gentle embrace of good friends, the words of Scripture spoken, the songs we love, perhaps even the coffee and cake. The communion of saints may be mystical and transcendent, but we grab hold of it through ordinary, tangible things. God knows we need this—it is consoling.

Isn’t this why Christ gave us the sacraments? In the sections of the Heidelberg on the sacraments, the words “surely” and “assurance” recur often. Lord’s Days 25-28 are summed up in Q&A 79:

[Christ] wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge,
that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work,
share in his true body and blood
as surely as our mouths
receive these holy signs in his remembrance,
and that all of his suffering and obedience
are as definitely ours
as if we personally
had suffered and paid for our sins. 

The sacraments are all about promise and assurance, manifested in the bread, the wine, the water. We are the people who share in these holy things. This communion endures even to our last days, even beyond them.

At church this Sunday, we will begin the service by gathering a few tangible objects and placing them in plain view: a book, a cross, a candle, water. Later, at the offering, come the bread and wine. Simple, ordinary things. Made holy only because through them Christ has promised to be present among us, to draw us into communion with him and therefore with each other. In that, we find great consolation.

I believe in the communion of holy people who share in the holy things.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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