Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Community knit together in loving prayer (Part 2)

The Communion of Saints is not JUST about being "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" praying for us and cheering us on. It is also - and more importantly - about our local church's worship being the earthly side of the great heavenly gathering around the risen Jesus. It is the SAME gathering. As the Orthodox say, the Christian liturgy is the “earthly heaven”. 

The Letter to the Hebrews is built around the idea of Jesus our great High Priest gathering the liturgical assembly of earth and heaven in the worship of the Father. This is what what it says to those early Christians accustomed to meeting for Eucharistic worship on earth:

“What you have (already) come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have (already) come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and have (already) been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and the Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . .” (Hebrews 12:22-24) 

So, however big or small the congregation is at Mass, we are always outnumbered by the company of heaven, the communion of love, into whose fellowship and worship we are gathered by Jesus our High Priest. He parts the Eucharistic veil; he opens heaven’s door, and we find ourselves part that world of the saints, the angels, our departed loved ones, the eternity of God’s love. 

When I was a teenager I read Prebendary F.B. Mackay’s biographical essay on Father Charles Lowder, a great priest of the Catholic revival in the Church of England, who founded the parish of St Peter’s London Docks as well as the Society of the Holy Cross. The book describes the circumstances of Father Lowder’s first curacy in Somersetshire where he was remembered as 

“ . . . the kind young gentleman who used to come and see us very often, and who said the prayers in church every day by himself.” Mackay continues: “Picture him, still the radiant boy, on a wet winter morning. He unlocks the damp, old country church, and enters the cold, musty place in the dark. He kindles a candle or two and puts on a surplice, the old square pews stretching around him into the darkness. The curate has tolled a few strokes on the bell, but no one responds. After a while, the fresh young voice breaks the hollow stillness, and the prayers are recited ‘to the four walls’, as the neighbours said, but really to the Most Holy Trinity, and with the angels, the archangels, and the whole company of heaven. Out of that acorn grew St Peter’s London Docks.” 

So many priests, evangelists, parish sisters, bush brothers, missionaries, and ordinary Christians trying to cope with the struggles of daily life and ministry, have been nourished in their loneliness and isolation - and strengthened in times of persecution - by that kind of lively sense of the communion of saints. It is my sincere belief that without it we live a shrunken Christian life. 

Every Mass here on earth is an open door to heaven.

Think of how St John the Divine, “in the Spirit” “on the Lord’s Day”, the day of the Eucharist, said,

“After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door” (Revelation 4:1).

The Lord himself opens that door to enable us to share in his Offering. Gazing into eternity, we see the throne. We see the four living creatures, the elders, the whole of creation praising and glorifying the Lamb that was slain. We are joined to the praise of that great company of the redeemed as they sing: “Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing. And we hear every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and the sea and all that is in it saying: “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:12-13) 

We share in that worship. If only our eyes were open at Mass, our "spiritual eyes." 

In the Book of Kings (2 Kings 6:15-17) there is the story of Elisha’s servant going out and seeing horses and chariots surrounding the city. Full of fear he ran inside and said, “Master, what shall we do?” Elisha said, “Fear not; for those who are for us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see”. The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and gazing into the spiritual realm he saw the great company of the Lord of Hosts surrounding them. 

With our eyes wide open at the Eucharist, we see Jesus, our Lord and Saviour who has redeemed us with his precious blood; we also see blessed Mary, the mother of Jesus and our mother too. Mary, who - full of grace - believed the Word of God, who said “yes” to God, who stood at the foot of her Son’s Cross, and who rejoiced at his resurrection; Mary, now higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, leading the praises of earth and heaven, but also our sister in Christ, supporting us with her love and prayers. We see the apostles, the evangelists, ancient saints like Ignatius, Agatha, Lucy, and Polycarp who faced martyrdom for Jesus. We see Benedict, Columba, Aidan, Bede, Hilda, Dominic, Francis, Clare and the other great religious saints. We see John of the Cross, Teresa, Thérèse, and the other directors of souls who still help us to cope with the ups and downs of the spiritual life. We see Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Mary MacKillop of the Cross and the other saints of our own time. We see them, and so many others as well. 

With our eyes wide open at Mass, we know that we are even now swept up into the gathering of the “great multitude which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’” (Revelation 7:9-12)


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