My great grandfather, “Daddy John,” they tell me, would get on a train to play golf at “The Greenbrier” in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.
He’d leave his house in Ashland, Ky., wave goodbye to his wife “Mumsy”— and grand-daughter Caroline (my mother) whom they helped rear. He would get so homesick by the time he got to Huntington, W.Va. (20 minutes away), that he would get off the train, switch to another and return home…
Although I did not know “Daddy John,” I have always felt I knew him from the stories lovingly passed down. The same is true with many members of my family whose stories have been carried down through time. I find that when I am sitting in my parish church, I will often reflect on people who have died, but whom I remember. I can almost see them sitting in “their pew.”
In the Apostle’s Creed, which is a profession of faith used in many Christian Churches, there is a phrase “We believe in the Communion of Saints…” (in Latin, communio sanctorum), which is the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead, those on earth, and those in the closer presence of God.. The phrase asserts that we are all part of a single “mystical body,” with Christ as the head.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, chapters 11 and 12, speaks of how we live out our days in the presence of the living and the dead. He gives an extensive list of well-known saints who died believing that God’s promise, which was unfulfilled on earth, would be gloriously fulfilled around that bend in the river of life we call death. He imagines that those heroes in the faith watch over those of us who are yet alive. They are our “balcony people.” We cannot see them, but they can see us.
“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 perfector of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2a).
Life is such that we need the support of the living, as well as the influential memory and support of those who have died. The concept of the Communion of Saints breaks into a new dimension when we realize that we have the on-going support of our friends and loved ones who have outrun us into the closer presence of God.
As part of Christ’s Body, we are united with those who have gone before, and in prayer there is a unity that brings us together. Although we may not see those saints who have moved on with our physical eye, we are given sight of them with our spiritual eye. Our stories, and theirs are also one, forming a “Cloud of Witness.”
When we recognize how much support we have from the prayers of that unseen cloud of witnesses, it will make a difference in our understanding of reality. And, when we join them in our true home, our Heavenly home, we too will look back and understand what now puzzles us, and we will call out our encouragement to those who remain behind.
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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