‘A Great Cloud of Witnesses’: All Saints Day Reflection

November 1 is All Saints Day.  More familiar to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, this is a day we pause both to remember and celebrate all those brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us.

The church universal is made up of those believers both on this earth, and those who have passed on to the other side.  Notice I didn’t say “saints both dead and alive” — for we believe all who are in Christ, “though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25) eternally in the presence of God.

I have a small bone to pick with fellow protestants on this topic. While I have many profound disagreements with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, I believe they have a much richer understanding of the ‘Communion of the Saints’ (a clear part of the Apostles’ Creed) and protestants have a far too diminished view.

Down through the centuries the church of true believers has been divided into “Church militant” and “Church triumphant.”  The “church militant” describes those who are, in the words of St. Paul, still “fighting the good fight” and have yet to receive their eternal reward. Those saints who have died and passed to the “other side” are called the “church triumphant”, for they have “kept the faith” and now stand victorious in the presence of their conquering King, Jesus the Crucified One.

So, if our departed brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith, now abide in eternal glory with Jesus, and are not therefore “dead” in the usual sense (i.e., unconscious), then what kind of relationship do they share with us who are alive in Christ on this side of the curtain?  Is it more than mere wishful thinking or childish speculation to tell a grieving child who’s lost his father at a young age that “Daddy is looking down from Heaven and watching over you”? 

Pushed even further, is it unbiblical (as many protestants claim) to believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Intercession of the Saints?  If we are indeed “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), saints who now stand alive in the presence of God’s throne, and they indeed to have some awareness of the state of affairs on earth (which many protestants believe; cf. Rev. 5:8), why would they not ask God to intervene on our behalf?  I know there is great speculation and debate over these questions, but I think it’s an issue protestants have been far too fearful of. (How many times have I heard a nervous protestant ridiculing “those Catholics who “pray TO the saints” when I believe our Catholic friends ask the saints to intercede for us? Huge difference.)

As one source writes:

“Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that the saints of God are just as alive as you and I, and are constantly interceding on our behalf. Remember, our connection with the saints in heaven is one grounded in a tight-knit communion. The saints are not divine, nor omnipresent or omniscient. However, because of our common communion with and through Jesus Christ, our prayers are joined with the heavenly community of Christians. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) testifies to this belief:

We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition…(Catechetical Lecture 23:9).

The Catholic Catechism concisely describes this communion among believers, by which we are connected to Christ, and thus to one another:

“Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us…So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.”

“…as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself: We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples (CCC 956, 957)!

What do we protestants find so objectionable and threatening in these sentiments?  I find a beautiful unity and communion in Christ that extends even across the mortal divide.  I find great comfort in knowing that many have been down this road I now tread.  My faith is spurred on by the living memory of those who have faced greater challenges, resisted greater temptations, endured graver trials and now stand triumphant in the glorious shadow of Christ in Heaven.

Today, on All Saints Day, let us therefore “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1) because this road of discipleship we now walk is well worn by that great cloud of saints who now cheer us on from Heaven’s bleachers.

Let us not just remember the saints once each year, but may we celebrate our mystical communion with them through Jesus Christ our Lord everyday —  and in a special way every time we gather at the Lord’s Table through Holy Communion.

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