Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Community knit together in loving prayer (Part 1)

As we prepare for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, I share with you some thoughts put together for new Christians on the Church as the community of love Jesus is gathering around himself, spanning the centuries and the continents, as well as heaven and earth.

Death cannot separate us from God’s love (as we see in Romans 8:28-39); so we know that it cannot separate us from those with whom we are bound in his love.

One sign of that is our prayer for each another, which continues in spite of death. In the mainstream Christian tradition we have always prayed for “those we love but no longer see”, as an expression of our still being gathered in the one community around Jesus, and also as a way of supporting our loved ones in their ongoing healing, sanctification and growth. In the words of a favourite hymn:

“Think, O Lord, in mercy
 On the souls of those
 Who, in faith gone from us
 Now in death repose.
 Here ‘mid stress and conflict
 Toils can never cease;
 There, the warfare ended,
 Bid them rest in peace.

“Often they were wounded
In the deadly strife,
Heal them, good Physician
With the balm of life.
Every taint of evil,
Frailty and decay,
Good and gracious Saviour,
Cleanse and purge away.

“Rest eternal grant them,
After weary fight:
Shed on them the radiance
Of thy heavenly light.
Lead them onward, upward,
To the holy place,
Where thy Saints made perfect
Gaze upon thy face.”

 - E. Palmer English Hymnal, No 356

Praying for our brothers and sisters who have died is one aspect of “the Communion of Saints.” “Saint” means “holy one . . . someone set apart for God.” In one sense all Christians are saints.

But the Church also uses the term “saint” in a special way of those whose surrender to God’s love in this life was so complete that they came to radiate his holiness. We see them as the “inner circle” of heaven, already living in the absolute fullness of God’s glory. It is helpful to think of heaven as the dimension of reality that is saturated with God’s love - the (usually) “invisible” world that we acknowledge when we recite the Creed at Sunday Mass.

A hint of this can be seen in Hebrews 12:1-2 which has been a great encouragement for followers of Jesus down through the centuries, especially in times of difficulty and loneliness:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

The picture here is of a race for which many spectators have gathered. They line the route so as to follow the contest. They have run the same race themselves, but now they are there to cheer us on. They include the Old Testament heroes of faith (mentioned in the previous chapter of Hebrews). They also include the holiest of our brothers and sisters who followed Jesus and now live in his glory in heaven, who were saved by his grace as we are; who responded to the same Word of God that we hear; who belonged to the Church as we do; who were nourished by the same sacraments that God has given us; who grew in prayer by the working of the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Some of them struggled with doubts and fears, tragedies and failure, as we do. Some of them were gentle souls. Some were grumpy some of the time. But all of them ran the race in this world, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, growing in his love. And in that great cloud of witnesses they love us as brothers and sisters, they pray for us, they urge us on to victory. How natural and right it is for us to ask for their prayers!

All who have been involved in the theatre or in musical productions know the world of difference there is between rehearsing in an empty hall and playing to an enthusiastic full house. As Christians we are playing to a full house . . . in our worship, in our prayer, in our struggles, and in our triumphs.

Knowing that should change the way we live. Special prayers, such as the “Litany of the Saints”, call upon many saints by name to pray for us. It is also quite common for Christians to identify with a particular saint or saints. This can develop into a deep sense of growing spiritual friendship within the family of God.

(To be continued . . . )


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