The Apostles’ Creed, the baptismal confession of all Christians, says of the Church:
‘I believe in…the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’
The Nicene Creed expands:
‘We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’
It is perhaps a commitment to the forgiveness of sins that is the most culture-critical aspect of this confession in my twenty-first century British context (and while the Nicene Creed emphasises baptism as a sacrament of forgiveness, the Apostles’ Creed makes forgiveness of sins, without qualification, a creedal sign of the baptised). But today, we ought to reflect on the communion of saints, on resurrection and life.
Today is the Feast of All Saints, the day Christians are called to give thanks for and rejoice with all those who have gone before us, who have died ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, who died was buried, and rose again for us’ (taken from the Committal, Common Worship Funeral Service).
Tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls, the day Christians are invited to give thanks for and rejoice with those we have known personally, who have died in this same hope.
One of the local churches I serve has been a confessing community since 930AD. There are many more Saints to rejoice with than Souls. The other has been a confessing community since 1939. There is among our number one man, in his nineties, who was there on Day One. Here, in contrast, the Souls outnumber the Saints.
One of the things I note in Sunderland, among both those who would locate themselves at the heart of the confessing community and those who slip in and out of our buildings to remember their dead before God, is a crisis in confidence in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and therefore in our ability to look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Every day of the year functions as a truncated All Souls, in which my loss is cut off from the community, becoming individual (that is, atomised) rather than personal (that is, embedded in relationships and an institution that provides meaning). People leave written prayers for the dead, imploring God to take care of their relatives. Every Sunday becomes a day to read aloud the names of those whose anniversary of death has come around, yet again, that week. There is no letting go, and therefore no meeting up again (as with, say, the Mexican day of the Dead celebrations; as All Souls ought to be). There is no receiving the grace to expand around our grief, such that we ourselves are signs of resurrection and participate now in the future breaking-into the present. These things are more peculiar to Sunderland than they are to any of the other cities I have lived in, Glasgow and Sheffield and Liverpool. This is not to say that grief does not break in uninvited, nor that it should be pushed away: rather, that when it comes, we can be confident in the promises that are ours in Jesus Christ and encourage a collective confidence in place of a collective anxiety.
The resurrected person of Jesus Christ bridges the divide between this life and the life of the world to come and holds together those we see and those we see no more. Through him, we are one. Through him, we can engage in conversation, using both shared words (liturgy) and the personal imaginative gift of prayer (our own words, shaped in part by the community). The rhythms of the year, these Feast days of Saints and Souls, are a gift that is both a duty and a joy. They ought rightly to be attended to, in their time. May these days be filled with light and celebration.