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June, 2004

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Posted by: | Posted on: June 24, 2004

The Unseen Creation Session: Four

The Communion of the Saints

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’

Hebrews Ch: 12 v. 1.

The Christian Calendar is littered with feast days and celebrations of the lives of the saints. Sunday November 1st, is remembered throughout the Church as All Saint’s day. Every week Christians, when reciting together the Creed, affirm their belief in ‘the communion of saints’. What do they actually mean by this? According to the Oxford English Dictionary a saint is defined as being ‘a holy or canonized person regarded as having a place in heaven, or a very virtuous person’. The cult of the saints still surrounds us today. Our Churches, even those built in recent years, are often still named after a saint who lived in the dim and distant past. Surely though the cult of DASCST, the saints is more than a mere name worth remembering, something we talk about in our creed must mean something more than mere nostalgia.

The Cult of the Saints in the Middle Ages

Perhaps the highpoint of the saints in popular culture and consciousness was during the Middle Ages. Every medieval Church in England was covered with wallpaintings depicting scenes from the lives of the Saints, often in the form of vibrant, even garish to modern eyes, colours. Statues of the Saints filled every possible niche in the church interior. In many senses the communion of the saints served as an ‘invisible but intimate family’ to the medieval Christian. People baptized their children after the name of a saint, made frequent offerings to their shrines, went to visit sites associated with them as a pilgrimage, prayed to them, and turned to them for protection. The most widely read book in late Medieval Europe was not the Bible, but ‘The Golden Legend’ by Jacobus de Vorgine, which described the lives of the saints, relating each one to a day in the calendar year.

Medieval Christians viewed the saints in a very personal manner. There would often by several altars in side-chapels dedicated to an individual saint. These would form the spiritual focus for a group of parishioners who formed themselves into a brotherhood or a guild (both men and women would be members), which met together to help serve both the spiritual and the social needs of its members, rather like a mutual benefit society or a ‘rotary group’. Quite literally the saints were viewed as ‘spiritual neighbours’. – almost like an unseen friend. On a pastoral level the communion of the saints provided a real connection between the living and the departed. They help assuage feelings of grief and gave a sense of hope in a better life beyond the grave.

Early Protestant reformers criticized the strong attachment people had to the saints, and, in particular, attacked the practice of praying to them, reminding Christians that Jesus Christ was ‘our only mediator and advocate’. As with so many aspects of medieval life there was a wide divergence between popular customs and the more sophisticated teachings of theologians. The idea was that you would ask the saint to pray for you, not that you would pray that the Saint would answer your prayers from their own power.

The reformers, however, acknowledged that Christians who had joined the faithful departed were still to be honoured as examples of virtous and godly living. They were ordinary Christians who had lived a life of holiness and devotions which future generations should seek to imitate.

This is the key to understanding the communion of the saints. They are those who have gone before us and who are still concerned for our spiritual well-being. Saints were never believed to be able to help people simply because they were a Saint but rather because God worked through them. For medieval Christians in particular, they were often easier to associate with because they were entirely human. And, as such, had themselves needed to work at their relationship with God. They served the faithful more as a ‘chaplain in heaven’ than as a demi-god in their own right.

Praying with the Saints

Both the Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox Churches strongly support the belief in the intercessionary power and role of the saints in the Christian life. Citing Matthew Ch: 25 v. 21 the Catechism of the Catholic Church claims that:

The witnesses who have preceded us into the Kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into thejoy of their Master, they were ‘put in charge of many things’, Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.’ 1

Whatever theological wing of the Church you come from, either evangelical or catholic, the presence of the saints in Heaven is an undeniable truth. Praying to the saints may not be a helpful practice for all Christians but Christian worship and devotion is meant to join with all the company of Heaven in singing God’s praises.

During the Reformation most of the saints were removed from the Church of England’s calendar. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer pruned the list of saints to only those who were mentioned in the Bible such as St. Paul, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Stephen, St. Barabus and the Apostles. Although Cranmer rejected the Roman Catholic practice of praying to the saints as ‘a fond thing, vainly invented’, he still saw the saints as an important part of Christian devotion and spirituality.

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Many Anglicans still struggle with the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary because of the large role she plays in Roman Catholic theology. Arguments about the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary into Heaven should not hijack the importance of Mary from orthodox Christian thought. She remains a central character in each of the four Gospels. Her unique role as Christs’ earthly mother and her dutiful obedience to God’s will single her out as the most important saint in the Christian calendar.

However Mary can be seen in a number of ways. Generally she is perceived as the meek and mild, submissive young girl, often depicted in blue and white as the handmaid of the Lord. There is however, from the very beginning of Christianity an alternate image which depicts her as the Queen of Heaven and as the Empress of the Angels. Mary can be seen as a very challenging and radical Christian which highlighs the central role by which femininity can play in what is, essentially, a male dominated religion.

Some attempts have been made by modern theologians and writers to tap into this. Mary can be a powerful icon and role model for the ministry of women. A Methodist writer, Pauline Warner makes much of biblical portrayals of Mary at the Annunciation, at Pentecost, and at the Foot of the Cross. In referring to a Roman Catholic icon she writes how it:

pictures Mary at the centre with the apostles looking towards her as the Holy Spirit descends. This is the beginning of the Church and there, in the middle of the male apostles, is this elderly woman. They look to her as one who can teach them because she knows what it is like to receive the Spirit and live a Spirit-filled life. She has been doing so for the past thirty four years or so since the Spirit overshadowed her. She really is the Mother of the Church, the one who can educate and nurture them through hre love and her experience.’ 2

Mary, like many of the Saints, can present modern day Christians with uncomfortable challenges to their lifestyle. In many senses she is the most radical of the biblical saints – an illegitimate teenage mother who became a cause for scandal in her own society. Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, contains a number of radical, almost revolutionary images, far removed from the image of one who was ‘meek and mild’. She extols how God:

has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty-handed.’

Questions for Study

1, Who in today’s world would you describe as a saint? Who in the recently departed would you describe as a saint? Why?
2, What qualities do you associate with sanctity? Name two or three you find particular difficulty relating to? Why?
3, Is there any particular saint that you feel especially inspired by?
4, What do you think of the reverence some Christians show to the Blessed Virgin Mary? Is she more important than any other ‘dead Christian?’ Do you think Mary brings a vital feminine dimension to Christianity which counters its male pre-occupations?
5, Do you think the Anglican Church has saints of its own? Should it develop a more developed theological system of sanctity?
6, Is there any point praying to a saint?
7, In order to become canonized two miracles need to be proven. Do you believe in miracles?

1 Catechism of the Catholic Church p. 571.

2 P. Warner, Women’s Icons of Ministry p. 7.