Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rowan Williams on the Communion of Saints

In a passage worth pondering on this All Saints' Day, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reflects on the meaning of "the communion of saints." He connects this article of the Apostles' Creed to the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. And he succinctly articulates a vision of the Church as one in which we receive the gift of new life in relationship with God and other people.



In its original Latin the Apostles' Creed announces belief in the communio sanctorum; and this could mean one of two things - or maybe both. It could be 'the sharing between holy people' or it could mean 'the sharing of holy things'. Now when the New Testament, especially St Paul, talks about 'holy people', it doesn't mean quite what we might mean by 'saint', it isn't offering a sort of verdict on a lot of spectacularly good lives. Christian people are 'holy' simply because they have been adopted by God into relationship, into that family relationship expressed in saying 'Our Father'. So the 'sharing between holy people' isn't some kind of club for the spiritually gifted; it's simply the relationship that holds together those who recognize and express their adoption by God. And so this sharing becomes tangible and visible when Christians are together just breathing the air of Christ, making real in words and actions who they are in relation to Jesus. The 'communion' that is meant here is what becomes visible when Christians are simply saying who they are.

And what does this involve? The Church is the community of those who have been 'immersed' in Jesus' life, overwhelmed by it. Those who are baptized have disappeared under the surface of Christ's love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads, and then, like the old world rising out of watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world. So when the Church baptizes people, it says what it is and what sort of life its people live. Baptism is an event in which the 'sharing between holy people' comes to light and we see what the Church really is, a community in which people are constantly being brought into new life by being given a new relationship with God and each other.

It is also the community of those who are invited to eat with Jesus. Just as, in his earthly life, Jesus expressed his promise to create a new people of God by sharing meals with unlikely people, just as, after the resurrection, he shares food with his disciples as he re-calls them to their task, so it is with the whole Church. We are in the Church because we have been invited, not because we have earned our place. And so when the Church gathers to eat and drink with Jesus in Holy Communion, the Church once again says who and what it is. In baptism and Holy Communion, the nature of the Church is laid bare for us. What is the Church? It is simply those who have been immersed in, soaked in the life of Jesus, and who have been invited to eat with him and pray to the Father with him.

~ Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (2007)

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