Friday, October 31, 2008

I believe in the communion of saints

I was teaching Youngest Daughter the Apostles' Creed a couple of weeks ago. No, not making her memorize it (though she probably could) but just going through it. I always stick a bit at "he descended into hell," because frankly, I don't know what it means. Wish I had ol' Peter here (who is to blame for the phrase) to tell me what it was all about. But by the time I got to "I believe in the communion of saints," I had picked up speed.

And here is approximately what I told her: When Christian people die and go to heaven, we can't see them anymore, and they can't talk to us. But they are still worshipping Jesus Christ. In fact, they are worshipping Him better when they see Him face to face in heaven than they were able to do here on earth. And we are worshipping Jesus Christ, too. So even though we can't be with one another anymore like we are here on earth, we are connected by the fact that we are all followers of Christ, loving Christ, and with Jesus Christ loving and knowing about all of us, whether we are here on earth or in heaven. That is the Church--the Church Militant here on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven. I reminded her of the part in the liturgy where it says, "And we also bless thy holy name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear." And finally, I reminded her of that great verse of the hymn "For All the Saints":

O blest communion, fellowship divine.
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine.
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

I should add, what might (or might not) seem at first blush irrelevant, that my husband has a wonderful annotated bibliography of apologetics works from centuries ago. It's located here. He tells me that he often thinks of those old divines fighting the good fight in their own time when we come to that part on Sundays that says, "And we also bless Thy holy name for all Thy servants departed this life in Thy faith and fear." And I should add that it goes on, "And give us grace so to follow their good example."

Cranmer's collect for All Saints captures perfectly what I regard as a sort of essence of the Anglican via media. It emphasizes the example of the saints and our union with them as servants of the Lord. I cannot forbear noting that neither the collect nor the preface contains any reference to invoking the prayers of nor venerating the saints nor to anything at all distinctively "high church." They are the kinds of bits of liturgy that I would like to offer to evangelicals as an example of what the Prayer Book contains that might enrich their own worship, if only their private worship.

The collect for All Saints:

O Almighty God, who has knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou has prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The proper preface, with the Sanctus:

Who, in the multitude of thy Saints, hast compassed us about with so great a cloud of witnesses, that we, rejoicing in their fellowship, may run with patience the race that is set before us, and, together with them, may receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.

Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying,

HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.


William Luse said...

I always stick a bit at "he descended into hell," because frankly, I don't know what it means.

That's interesting. Any idea why it puzzles you? For some reason I've always loved that line from the letter of Peter: "The gospel was preached even to the dead."

Don't know why though.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, partly because I don't really have a theological picture of where these guys were. Let's look at it this way: Whether you are a Prot. or a Catholic, once you're dead and "go somewhere," that's it. On the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, the people in Purgatory are _saved_, not in some uncertain state. When Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he has "hell" and "Abraham's bosom." But the verse in Peter makes it sound like these spirits were in some place where they were sort of hanging around, neither saved nor lost, waiting for Jesus to come and preach to them so their final state could be determined. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding it, but if they were definitely saved, why would they need to be preached to? And then there's the whole business about their being the spirits of people who were disobedient in the days of Noah. Does that really mean it was _just_ those people, or is that just a sort of sample of who got preached to after being dead from before the time of Christ? I suppose it could include all the pre-Christians like Adam and the Jews like Abraham and David. But then again, Hebrews 11 says quite definitely that Abraham was justified by faith, so once again, it sounds like he wouldn't need special after-death preaching. In fact, Jesus said, "Abraham rejoiced to see my day," seeming to imply that he and Abraham were already in contact before his birth.

William Luse said...

Very mysterious, isn't it? Though sceptics love throwing in our collective face the fact that so much of the Bible doesn't sufficiently explain itself, I like it that way.

I think your key question is: "if they were definitely saved, why would they need to be preached to?"

Maybe in the same way that we all need to be baptized. 'Definitely saved' does not mean 'in heaven.' That Abraham was justified by faith doesn't mean 'in heaven.' (Though I have no opinion on whether he was or not.) For example, if I died tomorrow, it might be remotely possible that my faith (along with a few other decent things I've done) will save me. One thing I know: I am neither ready nor do I deserve to see the sinless God face to face, or to keep company with angels.

I've often wondered if He showed Himself to all the denizens of Hell, or only to the just. I tend to doubt the former. His appearing in Hell had some very necessary purpose, since even from His incarnation, Satan seemed well aware of Who He was.

Do you happen to remember who the two figures were who stood at Jesus' side during the Transfiguration?

Lydia McGrew said...

Moses and Elijah.

The thing is, the passage in Peter's epistle (without which we'd know nothing about this at all) says definitely that he preached to the spirits "in prison" (or "in bondage") who had been disobedient before the flood in the time of Noah.

Now, that definitely doesn't sound like it's talking about the just of the OT, who are always portrayed everywhere else in the NT as being somewhere very "positive," if I can put it that way, and certainly not as being in bondage. In fact, the place of comfort where the beggar Lazarus goes in Jesus' parable is called (by Christ) "Abraham's bosom."

The most natural interpretation of the passage in Peter is that these pre-Noahic "bad guys" are in some sort of bad place, where they have been for thousands of years, but are now (at the time, presumably, of Christ's burial and before his resurrection) being given a definite second chance to repent. The only trouble is, no Christian theological tradition (that I know of), recognizes the existence of any such place.

William Luse said...

Not knowing the precise differences among Hades, Sheol, prison, Abraham's bosom, Paradise, or the Catholic limbo and purgatory, I like this page from the Catechism because it keeps it pretty simple. The essence of it seems to be that the just were delivered from whatever bondage held them. I don't know if they were all in the same place, but I've decided not to stress out over what I cannot know. With a monster who doesn't even care why Christ descended into hell about to be elected president, I'm already stressed enough. In fact, he might bring some hell to the surface and save the rest of us the trip.

Lydia McGrew said...

It doesn't worry me. There are lots of parts of Scripture that I don't understand or that seem bizarre. Some of them worry me a lot more than this part. The bit from Peter about Christ's descent into hell is just one of those odd puzzles of a passage, and I wouldn't think twice about it in a year if that particular phrase weren't in the Apostles' Creed.

William Luse said...

Also, I don't think there's a place where we're "given a definite second chance to repent." Purgatory, e.g., is a place of purification, although I suppose that can't happen without a corresponding repentance. But I suspect a weighing in the balance had already taken place, the sinner's soul already predisposed to repentance, and that now he must suffer the temporal punishments due his sins. But then I'm just guessing.

Unlike you, it would bother me enormously if they took that line out of the creed. If I belonged to a church which removed it, I'd leave at once.

Lydia McGrew said...

"Also, I don't think there's a place where we're "given a definite second chance to repent.""

Right, I agree with you, and so does Christian tradition on both the Protestand and Catholic side of the aisle. That's my point. It's hard to understand the passage in Peter from which this line is taken, because that's what the Peter passage kind of sounds like--a second chance to repent for the sinners from before the Flood. Sure, I could well be over-reading it, but if I were going to go including it in a Creed ab initio and trying to give the Scriptural passage my best shot at interpretation, that's probably the interpretation I'd be inclined to give it. Which is strange, to say the least.