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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Living Stones Built into a Spiritual House -- The Communion of Saints

by Lawrence Fox

The communion of saints is first and foremost a covenantal bond originating within the Most Holy Trinity, which then flows within the Mystical Body of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Apostles’ Creed - which has its origins in the ancient Church at Rome - synthesizes the deposit of faith into twelve Articles (one for each apostle).  In the creed, there is the article of faith, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”   The intent of this document is to reflect upon the significance of the expression “the communion of saints” in the life of the apostolic Church.

Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles that after the 3000 were baptized by the apostles on Pentecost, “They (the disciples) devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the communion, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Act 2:42)  The Catholic Catechism identifies the “communion of the saints” as a further expression of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church CCC 949) established by Jesus Christ upon Peter the Rock (Matthew 16:18) and therefore synonymous with other expressions of the Church including, the Mystical Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12-30), “God’s Priestly and Holy People” (1 Peter 2:9), and “Citizens and Members of God’s Household.” (Eph. 2:19- 21)

Luke first alludes to the expression “communion of saints” in his Acts of the Apostles. With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the 120 in the upper room, the apostles proclaimed the Good News to the Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem. They asked Peter, “Brethren what must we do?”  He answered, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Three thousand were baptized and added to their numbers to that day. Luke then identifies the catechetical form of these newly baptized members of the Church, “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the communion, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Act 2:42) 

The “communion of saints” which Luke identifies has two closely linked meanings: “communion in holy things” and “communion among holy persons both living and deceased.”  (CCC 948)  The word communion comes from the Latin word communio which is itself a translation of the New Testament Greek word koinonia. Both words communio and koinonia encompass many concepts such as “shared in common,” “society,” “to communicate, participate, or partake in common.” It is also identified as a “unity of the Spirit in the bond syndesmos of peace (irene). (Eph.  4:3)

Paul invites the Church to live in communion with Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:9) and to share in the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 12:14). St. John invites the Church to enter into a communion with the apostles, who are in communion with the Father and the Son by virtue of the Gospel. (1Jn. 1:3, 4)  As such, the communion of saints is first and foremost a covenantal bond originating within the Most Holy Trinity, which then flows within the Mystical Body of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit.  The notion of Christian fellowship (English Translation) is somewhat pale in substance; which may explain while the expression is mostly dominated with the English-speaking world as “social piety.”

The communion of saints, although composed of many parts, is one body sharing in common, “one Spirit and the calling to one hope, together with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4: 4-6)

This one body operating in brotherly charity (Augustine Faith & Creed Par 21. pg 13) is the fruit of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which increases as the Saints share in the one Altar of the Church. Paul writes, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a communion in the body of Christ? Since there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor. 10:15)
The Communion of Saints in the Breaking of the Bread
At each Catholic Mass, the Presider (Bishop or Priest) invites the “communion of holy persons” to receive, “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit.”  This Trinitarian doxology is lifted from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 13:14). The command by Jesus to “worship God in Spirit and Truth” is manifested within the Catholic Mass which is Trinitarian Liturgy. The word liturgy leiturgos in Greek means “A minister of the sanctuary” which describes the baptized people of God – living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Peter 2:5)

And the “communion of holy persons” responds to the Presider with the words, “With your spirit.” Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the visible authority of Jesus Christ is manifested within His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The exchange above between Presider and Saints objectively expresses the “bond of peace” which exists between the communion of Saints, Christ Jesus and with all those who hold and teach the Catholic Faith which comes to them from the Apostles.

That is because the sacramental life of the Church - Baptism, Confession, Confirmation, Eucharist, Orders, Marriage, and Extreme Unction - unites each generation of Catholics with the “Faith of the Apostles” so that each generation (living and deceased) shares in common the good things of the Church; everything belongs to Christ and Christ belongs to God and the communion of saints belong to Christ. (Thomas Aquinas Articles of Faith. 10 pg. 57)  Paul writes that the communion within the mystical body of Christ in will be completed at the end of time. “Your hearts will be strong, blameless, and holy in the presence of God, who is our Father, when our Lord Jesus appears with all his saints.” (1 Thess. 3:13)

As in a natural body each member works for the good of the entire body, (Aquinas Articles of Faith. 10 pg. 57) so also is it with the communion of saints; the mystical body of Christ (1 Cor. 12-30) Jesus Christ -- the principal member and head over all the Church, which is His Body (Eph. 1:22) -- establishes His communion of saints by placing them under His ordained hierarchy of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In this way, His body grows in good works, unity of faith, and a mature knowledge of Him so as to not be deceived as infants tossed here and there by every changing wind. (Ephesian 4: 9-14)

The “communion of saints” is also known as the “bond of peace.” Jesus said to his disciples,
“My peace I give you...” (Jn. 14:27) The “bond of peace” that Jesus Christ desires is an objectively visible “communion of saints” extending to all humanity. Jesus prayed “Father may they all be one as You and I are one, so that the world may believe.” (Jn. 17:21) As such, the “communion of saints” living the “bond of peace” is meant to be an objective and universal visible proclamation of the Gospel to the World. As such, Paul warns the Church not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:32) by deliberately breaking the “bond of peace” through acts of immorality (1Cor. 6:9-11), divisions (1Cor. 11:19) and heresies (Gal. 5:19). To preserve this communion, sometimes a person is ex-communicated (removed from communion) as a form of medicine for the part and the whole. This ex-communication was identified as “turning the person’s body over to Satan for the preservation of his soul.”(1 Cor. 5:5, 1Tim. 1:19-20) Thus it was in the primitive Church that - when one was excommunicated - the devil physically attacked him.

The Communion of Saints Living and Gone Before Us Marked with the Sign of Faith

One of the fallouts of the Reformation has been the lost understanding of the communion of saints as something actively existing between the people of God on earth and the people of God in heaven -- who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. The Catholic experience of this bond (living and deceased) is rooted in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and the life of the Saints throughout Church History.

The Gospel writers capture the story of the Transfiguration in which Peter, James, and John are with Jesus on the mountain and they are all suddenly enveloped by a cloud and within the cloud they witness Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah and they hear God’s voice. (Matt 17. 1-6, Mark 9:1-9, Luke 9:28-33) 
Throughout Sacred Scripture an overshadowing of the Holy Spirit is depicted as a cloud enveloping persons, places, and things such as Moses on Mount Horeb (Exodus 24:16), the People of Israel (Exodus 13:21), and the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:2). The Gospel writers capture in the event the one image of the Holy Spirit, the Communion of Saints, the Church, and the Mystical Body of Christ.

Within this overshadowing a communion exists between the people of God on earth and the people of God gone before marked with the sign of faith. Luke states in the Acts of the Apostles that with Baptism, the 3000 steadfastly remained within the communion of saints. Both words communio and koinonia again encompass the concepts to communicate, participate, or to partake in common. Since Peter is the source of the Mount of Transfiguration narrative (2 Peter 1:17) and it is Peter who uses the term koinonia to mean participation in God’s Divine Life (2 Peter 1:4), it is reasonable to conclude that participating in God’s Divine Nature brings about an active communion of the saints both living and deceased.

John the Evangelist writes that he was on the

Island of Patmos because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. While there he relates that “on the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit.” (Rev. 1:10) The expression “on the Lord’s Day” means the 8th Day or Sunday. The expression “in the Spirit” is fundamentally the same “in the Spirit” which John experienced with Peter and James on the Mount of Transfiguration. It should be noted that Luke prefaces the Transfiguration with the words “about eight days” subtly implying the worship of God on the 8th Day (the Lord’s Day) is related to the events on the Mount of Transfiguration when the apostles were “in the Spirit.” The 8th day within apostolic Christianity also denoted participating in the Lord’s Supper on Sunday (Eucharistic Celebration).

John then “in the spirit” received a glimpse of eternal worship, the divinity of Jesus, and the Old Testament Prophets speaking with Jesus. John’s experience “in the Spirit” on the Island of Patmos carries with it the same distinctions. The one difference and

applicable to this topic is the fact that the angels and the saints in heaven speak with John and he speaks back to them. In other words, John is not simply a passive observer as on the Mount of Transfiguration, he is now an active participant in the whole dynamic meaning of the “communion of saints.”

John writes that he weeps and weeps because no one was found worthy to open the scrolls. His experience is real and not imagined. Then one of the elders (presbyters) – which John sees and speaks about earlier - says to him, “Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed, He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev. 5:5) John is consoled by the words of the presbyter who is participating in Divine Worship of God as noted in the subsequent verses of the same chapter. John’s experience of consolation is not different than the Catholic experience of saints in heaven sharing with  the saints on earth their peace with Christ in heaven. It is the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God and Father working through the whole mystical body of Christ. It is not God who separates His family; only the traditions of reforming men.

This is not the only time that John while in the Spirit enters into a conversation with an elder in heaven. John sees a multitude of people of every nation, people, and language standing before the throne and in front of the lamb all wearing white robes. One of the elders asks John, “these in white robes – who are they and where did they come from?” John responds, “Sir you know.” The elder then provides the answer. It is important to notice that John – who identifies himself as an elder in his Epistles (2Jn 1:1) – is communicating with angels and elders in heaven while in the Spirit. 

Both the angels and the elders are leading the communion of saints in the worship of God. It is the angels and the elders in heaven who are offering golden bowls of incense which are the prayers of the saints on earth. (Rev. 5:8) John’s identification of the “Lord’s Day” and “in the Spirit” as a preface to the unveiling the apocalypses of Divine Worship in heaven is most deliberate. The fact that those leading the worship in heaven are angels and elders of the Church and not priests of the Old Testament is deliberate. 

John is showing to the Church that the worship of God in Spirit and Truth in heaven and on earth includes: processions with priestly robes and candelabras, readings and moral instructions, golden bowls of incense, doxology, new songs, an altar holding the lamb sacrificed from the beginning of the ages and the souls of the martyrs under the altar, virgins and eunuchs for the Kingdom of God, the hidden manna, and the supper of the lamb. 

John declares in and through the Book of Revelation that liturgical worship of God on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) with the communion of saints on earth is a participation in the eternal liturgical worship of God with the communion of saints in Heaven. The communion of saints is according to Divine Revelation a communion in holy things (the
supper of the Lamb) and a communion among holy persons both living and those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. To argue there does not exist a communion of saints both living and deceased is to argue that the Church on earth has no participation in grace with the Church in Heaven. The only place such a chasm and condition exists is between those in hell and those in heaven. That seems to be the definition of reformed worship.

Communion with the Martyrs in the Early Church

John writes that he saw under the altar of the lamb, the souls of those beheaded because of their witness for Jesus Christ. This is a very graphic image of the blood of the lamb pouring off the altar and then under the altar and those beheaded are the fruit of the suffering of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ Blood is the source of their witness. Where do these saints participate in the blood of Jesus? Paul writes, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion in the blood of Christ?"

The apostolic Churches in the earliest records would reserve the relics of those martyred for the faith in a location where they celebrated the Lord’s Supper; sometimes literally under a fabricated table upon which they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. By doing so, the apostolic Churches in the earliest records expressed in worship the events of Revelation 6:9.

Ignatius, (107-10 AD) Martyr and Bishop of Antioch, Syria, wrote to the church in Rome, “Grant me no more than to be a sacrifice for God while there is an altar at hand. Then you can form yourselves into a choir and sing praises to the Father in Jesus Christ, that God gave the bishop of Syria the privilege of reaching the sun's setting (death) when he summoned him from its rising (birth).” The praise of God in His saints and martyrs was evidently part of apostolic worship. Ignatius wrote to the Church at Rome telling them that he would hope that the stomachs of the beast in the arena would
The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch
become his sepulcher so that they (Christian in Rome) would not be burdened with collecting his remains.
“I am writing with all the churches and bidding them all realize that I am voluntarily dying for God -- if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts -- that is how I can get to God. I am God's wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure 

loaf for Christ. I would rather that you fawn on the beasts so that they may be my tomb and no scrap of my body be left. Thus, when I have fallen asleep, I shall be a burden to no one.”

Ignatius describes his impending death at the hands of the Romans as a participation in the Lord’s Supper by using the language of “God's wheat” and being ground up to make a “pure loaf for Christ.” The Lord’s Supper was to the apostolic Church not a symbol but something literal and substantial as noted earlier within the writings of Paul, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion (participation) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a communion (participation) in the body of Christ? Since there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor. 10:15) Ignatius was so united within the communion of saints that he saw his death as a literal giving back to God, the Body of Christ which he received as a disciple and celebrated every Lord’s Day as a Catholic Bishop.

In 156 AD, Polycarp the Catholic Bishop of Smyrna – a disciple of John the Evangelist -- was put to death by the Roman authorities for refusing to deny Jesus Christ as “Lord and God.” Within the recorded martyrdom of Polycarp the Catholic Bishop of Smyrna, there exists the most vivid account of the apostolic Churches reserving the relics of those martyred for the faith in a location over which they celebrated the Lord’s Supper:

“So we later took up his bones (Polycarp's), more
Arm of St. Polycarp 
precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter. Such are the things concerning the blessed Polycarp, who, martyred at Smyrna along with twelve others from Philadelphia, is alone remembered so much the more by everyone that he is even spoken of by the heathen in every place. He was not only a noble teacher, but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate as one according to the gospel of Christ. By his patient endurance he overcame the wicked magistrate and so received the crown of immortality; and he rejoices with the apostles and all the righteous to glorify God the Father Almighty and to bless our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls and Helmsman of our bodies and Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.”
Catholic is distinguished from other movements in the Christian world then, which were Gnostic, a movement of pre-Christian origin that taught Christ was an emissary of a divine being, which was esoteric knowledge (gnosis) and enabled the redemption of the human spirit.

The accounting of Polycarp’s martyrdom is identified as “The letter of the Church in Smyrna to the Church in Philomelium.” This account was made by a man named Pionius, who writes, “While searching diligently for the copy of the accounts from Gaius, I was given a revelation of the blessed Polycarp, who appeared to me, as I shall explain later.” Pionius makes a “matter of fact” confession to his fellow Christian travelers that Polycarp, who was martyred, made himself present to him (Pionius). Pionius’ manner of writing about the encounter with Polycarp is a normative matter of fact. He understands and his audience understands that the communion and bond of peace which exists between the saints in heaven and saints on earth is sometimes visibly manifested.

In summary, within the Apostles’ Creed there is the article of faith which includes, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. AMEN.” 

Did you enjoy this piece. Lawrence Fox has also written: Just Discovered! The Gospel of Symbols

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this very inspiring piece of work! Great job!