For the 7:30 am crowd at St. Paul’s in Cambridge. This one would have benefited from more concrete examples, but I had to weigh the benefits of brevity against those of vividness (most folks don’t go to Mass at 7:30 am to hear a long homily …).
In refuting the Sadducees in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes two points that shed light on the mystery of the communion of saints—the mystery upon which the Church invites us to reflect during this month of November.
First, Jesus reveals that his Father is “not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” This claim has far-reaching implications. For if all are alive to God (even the dead), then—in the most important sense—all are alive to each other. In God, there is no yesterday or tomorrow; there is only the great ‘today’ of eternity. In God, men and women of different ages and different lands jostle and rub shoulders. In God, we all become contemporaries and neighbors.
Second, Jesus reminds the Sadducees that God identified himself to Moses as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”. It’s easy to forget how astonishing this fact is: God chose to make himself known through human names. In the culture of ancient Israel, a name was not just a convenient way of picking someone out of a crowd. It was identity. It was mission. It was relationship. Abraham received his name when he left the security of Ur to become the father of nations. Jacob received his name when he wrestled the angel and limp. Each in his own way said yes to God’s will; each walked in faithfulness; each paid a price; and each received from God a name in return.
But that name did not remain a trophy on a shelf. God then used the names Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and everything those names stood for—their witness, their faithfulness, their good deeds—as the basis for drawing Moses into relationship with himself. God freely chose to include poor human efforts in his saving plan.
In other words, God has decided not to save us without us.
Combining these two points, then, we get something like the Catholic understanding of the communion of saints. God sees fit to use our faithfulness as a means to touch the lives of others, to build up his Church. And because all are alive to God, our prayers and good deeds touch even the lives of those far away in space and in time. A certain sharing of spiritual goods is possible between Christians of every age and every land.
This insight lies behind all those practices that are so warmly human, so distinctively Catholic, and yet so hard to explain: asking the intercession of saints, gaining indulgences, venerating the Virgin Mary, “making reparation” to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or “offering up” our little trials for the poor souls of purgatory. All of these have a sure effect because all are alive to God.
As it turns out, then, the doctrine of the communion of saints is both challenging and consoling. It’s challenging because it implies that there is no such thing as private sin. When I fail to live up to the name—the personal mission—that God has given me, the whole Church is diminished. It’s consoling too, however, because nothing done in love need ever done in vain. Our hidden sacrifices, our sincere prayers, or hardships patiently borne, all these things can build up the Church. From prisons, from sick beds, from kitchens and from offices, God harvests the love and fidelity that he will use to touch hearts, heal wounds, and raise up new saints.
As we continue with Mass, then, let us consider that we celebrate the same Eucharist that has nourished the saints of every age. And let us pray that this Eucharist keep us unto the great ‘today’ of eternal life, where all are alive to God.