Texts: Hebrews 12:1-2; Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poem, “I tremble with gratitude”
I went for a long hike on Friday, to try to crystallize my thoughts on the communion of saints, and the author of Hebrews’ “great cloud of witnesses.” Hebrews talks about running the race set before us, and for the author, the urgency of the second coming, which he believed to be imminent, impelled him to use running and race language. But as I hiked the small mountain I live on, I wondered if maybe, 2000 years after Hebrews was written, hiking isn’t a better metaphor.
There’s a huge difference between hiking a path laid down by those who have gone before and bushwhacking a new trail. Some of the time I was striding along old, if overgrown, logging trails, and other times I was slogging through chest-high grasses and chokecherries and parsnip, or winding through saplings and fallen limbs of older trees. It made me think of Vermont farmer and writer Chuck Wooster, who once wrote a column about how essential it is to keep Vermont’s old fields open, for the sake of birds and other animals who need grassland to eat or reproduce, as well as to keep the character of Vermont. It is easy to let a field become re-forested, and it does take effort to keep a field mowed every year. But, Wooster writes, that effort is a fraction of the intensive labor needed to clear a field in the first place. Keeping Vermont’s fields open is a way of respecting the work done by our ancestors.
Our ancestors, from whatever continents, cultures, and religions, faced just about every struggle, joy, and hardship that any of us could ever face. In every generation, human beings have recognized the generations that went before, that had cleared the way, so to speak, and they knew that those ancestors deserved respect. I remember claiming in school that it wasn’t fair—every year there was more history to learn; therefore, I had it worse than my parents when they were in history class. And that’s true, but we are also the beneficiaries of the knowledge, customs, and writings of all who walked this path before us. We inherit not only their history, which is often messy, but also their wisdom, faith, and courage. Even the great men and women who have helped make huge changes in the world—people like Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King—even they drew inspiration and direction from their forebears. Every path, no matter how hard or stony or long, has been walked by those before us, and that should give us hope.
I used to wonder why the early church was so fixated on martyrs, but it is precisely this need for hope and courage that was responsible. In a time when walking the way of peace invited state violence, martyrs were symbols of those who had the courage to resist, even though it cost their lives. And their memory stood as patterns for resistance to violence, injustice, and conformity. When you know you are going to be tested, and your faith in what you hold most dear will be shaken, those martyrs are like guides on the road in front of you, holding lanterns. And, even more importantly, they point to perhaps the deepest, most essential aspect of faith: that nothing, not even death, can stop the power of God. When the power of love meets the power of death, even if it seems like death wins momentarily, faith tells us: love wins.
But the theology of the communion of saints isn’t just about the example or symbolism of those who went before us, as powerful as that aspect is. It is also about the spiritual union of all people of faith, alive or dead. Traditional theology holds that, as the church is the body of Christ, then all members of that body are in some sense alive and continually working towards that body’s perfection. That is why, in some traditions, the faithful are encouraged to petition the saints; it’s like the saints are another level of support, an extension of our living church community.
But there are other, more ecumenical perspectives. There are physics papers, books of philosophy, and theological treatises written on the concept of eternity. There are two kinds of eternity: there’s the everlasting, linear type of eternity, like the kind talked about in “Amazing Grace”—“when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining like the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” That kind of eternity can be measured, but no ending. But there’s another way of thinking about eternity, and that is as a state that is outside of time, a reality in which all times and moments are eternally present and eternally real. This, ancient philosophers believed, was the realm of God and the eternal truths. This eternity, which even modern physicists and philosophers speculate about, is beyond our human ideas of time. It is an eternity in which all who have lived, are living, and who will live are equally present and equally alive.
This is pretty abstruse, though there are indications that cultures who do not use writing, whose history depends wholly on oral stories and memories, intuit this same framework. The framework of the animist Aborigines of central Australia is most often referred to as “Dreamtime,” a concept that’s lost much of its meaning and original cultural context in its translation into Western thought. The term “Dreamtime” is actually a rendering of the word alcheringa, and may be better understood as “time out of time,” or “everywhen.” The Dreamtime can be understood approximately as the time of creation, as well as the simultaneous co-existence of all a person’s ancestors. In Dreamtime, the Heroes walked around the land, imbuing certain places with sacredness and significance and singing things into existence. They created paths known as songlines; when an Aboriginal person goes Walkabout, they travel these songlines, singing the traditional songs of each place they pass through. In this way they participate in the original creation, in a sense re-creating the land of their birth. Land, time, ancestry, and eternity are mingled.
As the products of mostly Euro-American, modern, Western culture, this mystical view of time and ancestors is very alien to our culture. And yet there are hints of it in our own: in theologies and philosophies of eternity and the communion of saints, for example, but also in more prosaic, down-to-earth beliefs and practices. Anyone who has been a Selectboard member has received a call of concern for the local cemetery, often from someone who believes the cemetery should be mowed more often, as a sign of respect. Every year on Memorial Day, we place new flags on the graves of our war dead and veterans. The way we treat our graveyards is an ancient memory of reverence for the ancestors. In fact, many biblical scholars now believe that the commandment, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long on the earth,” was not about obeying your parents, but about honoring your ancestors.
There are less culturally weighty, but still important, ways we enact the presence of those who have gone before us. The more domestically talented among us pass on quilting patterns and recipes. We tell and re-tell stories that we know by heart; part of moving to a new town is hearing stories—often confusing to new ears—about the people who have passed on, but who are important because they helped to shape the town. As long as the stories are told, especially to the young and to newcomers, they are kept alive. I’ve lived in Tunbridge about 8 years, and I still hear stories—old and new—about famous Tunbridge characters. Learning a new place is, to some extent, learning about people who are no longer physically with us, but who continue to shape us and our communities.
I’ve just offered several ways of thinking about the communion of saints in one sermon: the saint as the believer of the past, who’s walked the road of life ahead of us, helping, little by little, to light our way and smooth our road. I mentioned the martyrs, those witnesses that the God of love overcomes the powers of death. Physicists and philosophers and Australian Aboriginals all contribute their own perspectives on the nature of eternity, with all its implications for the presence of the ancestors. And I’ve mentioned some of the ways that we continue to show respect and love for the departed from our midst. But right now, I invite you to close your eyes. Picture someone you’ve lost, who means a great deal to you. What did they teach you during their lives? How did they show you their love for you? What did they teach you about life and the world around you—about music, food, hunting, a craft, service, faith, tradition, courage? Even if you can’t see their face, can you feel their embrace? Can you feel them sending you strength?
For many of us, in times of sorrow or stress, we turn to those we’ve loved, even if they are no longer with us. We remember the strength with which they faced their own troubles and worries and loss. We remember their grace under fire, and their courage. Maybe we remember their advice, or their honesty, or even their complaints—maybe we remember their teaching us that it was okay to complain. However they lived and died, they are still teaching us; whenever and however we turn to them, they are our witnesses, our communion of saints.
I want to end with the words of St. Dumbledore to his pupil, the young wizard Harry Potter at the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry, in a moment of extreme difficulty, believes he saw his late father coming to his rescue, only to find (due to some confusing magic involving time travel) that it had actually been himself. Harry feels a little foolish, and very downcast, but Dumbledore says, “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.”
You are the product of a lot of love and work and faith and courage. Whatever image of the communion of saints works for you, remember: No one we love ever truly leaves us. We carry them all, along with all our ancestors of flesh and of faith, within ourselves. They are those who, as Wendell Berry reminds us, are among us when we sit down with our families for the evening meal. May we be blessed with the awareness of their presence.