Sunday, October 3, 2010

Supper with the Saints

Growing up in the Midwest, I was accustomed to seeing stained glass windows in churches. Their bright day-lighted colors and iconic designs portrayed Jesus and his followers and other faithful souls of ancient times.

Coming to the Northeast and New England in particular I encountered another architectural style, simpler, plainer, including clear class in the windows. The Puritan view certainly accounts for the simplicity, wanting as they would to avoid any distractions from prayer and proclamation.

I soon discovered, however, that there was another reason for the clear glass windows, or at least another benefit.

Many of the typical white, steepled, churches in the villages of New England are located next to the burial ground of the church. When gathered for worship, the saints inside the church can look out and see the grave markers of their friends and ancestors, the saints gone before them. Believers gather around the Lord’s Table and a mere glance out the window recalls other faithful souls preceding them in the parade of the people of God.

One of the churches near my home recently built a new worship space attached to their traditional New England style structure. It was erected so that it would be next to the graveyard, and the wall to that side was mostly clear glass to make sure the worshipping congregation could not miss the historical and spiritual presence of the previous generations.

Far from being merely a quaint custom, this New England practice of having windows to look out of rather than just at, has something important to teach us—especially when the view is of the grave stones of the faithful.

There’s something to be said for continuity.

In so many ways, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the world started with us. Neglecting the lessons of history can be a very dangerous thing. For one thing, there is considerable hubris to the idea that we got here on our own, without benefit of the labors of anyone gone before us.

Even in matters of faith, we have all been blessed by the examples set for us by heroes and heroines of the past. Our own kinfolk and others we’ve known have brought us along. But there have also been many we have not known personally, folks we’ve come to know through the stories of God’s faithful through the centuries.

Remembering those saints and recalling them as we worship helps us realize that we are part of an on-going, great and wondrous body of people called the church of Jesus Christ. Such continuity is encouraging and challenging as we plunge onward along the pathways where Christ leads us today. It is also a cause for celebration.

Our Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Worship (1993) provides some clear-glass windows through which we come to the Lord’s Supper with the saints.

The introductory lines to the sung Holy, Holy, Holy make it clear we do not worship God alone:

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with the heavenly choirs
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

The Eucharistic prayers often conclude with something like this in Great Thanksgiving A:

In union with your church in heaven and on earth,
we pray, O God, that you will fulfill your eternal purpose
in us and in all the world.

or this in Great Thanksgiving B:

Give us strength to serve you faithfully
until the promised day of resurrection,
when with the redeemed of all the ages
we will feast with you at your table in glory.

or again in Great Thanksgiving D:

In your mercy, accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,
as, in communion with all the faithful in heaven and on earth,
we ask you to fulfill, in us and in all creation,
the purpose of your redeeming love.

or from Great Thanksgiving F:

And grant that we may find our inheritance with
[the blessed Virgin Mary, with patriarchs, prophets, apostles,
and martyrs, and]
all the saints who have found favor with you in ages past.
We praise you in union with them
and give you glory through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thanksgiving for and with the saints propels us into the future with confidence in God’s faithfulness, just as God has always been faithful according to many witnesses.

How to you remember the people of the past in your worship? Who are saints to you?


  1. I think I get it, but what is the definition of 'saint' that you're using? It's not a word we come across frequently in the Protestant world.

  2. Good question.

    The New Testament applies the tag of "saint" to any or all of the people of God (see, for example, Acts 9:41 and Ephesians 1:1). The Greek word for saint literally means "one being made holy," that is, a forgiven sinner. Therefore any one of us qualifies.

    There are other saints, heroes and heroines of the people of God, no longer with us, who have led exemplary lives of witness and discipleship. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians have their own process for determining who falls into this category.

    But Protestants are rediscovering saints in this sense too--without any process of canonization. Anyone we choose to remember because of their faithfulness and example is a "saint" in the broad sense of the word.
    From Calvin to M.L.King, Jr., from Mom and Dad to the church pastor or college professor, from the famous to the unknown person who performed a gracious deed--saints every one.

    In answer to your question, "what is the definition of 'saint'" I'm using--all of the above--we join with them all in praising God when we worship. When we come to the Table, these are the saints we share the Lord's Supper with.

    Thanks for your comment, Jenn.


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