Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflection: Sunday of All Saints

While the Western church observes this day as Trinity Sunday, the Eastern church commemorates it as the Sunday of All Saints. The following reflection -- a very personal one that I wrote initially for my daughter -- captures a bit of each holy day, moving from the trinitarian essence of our faith as expressed in the Apostles' Creed to the great and ongoing influence of saints -- great and small, named and unnamed -- upon our faith and our lives. As the Orthodox pray: Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen. Amen, indeed.

I thought you should know: I am a Christian.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

This is my faith, though not mine in the sense of having made it or even of having discovered it myself. No, I received this faith as pure, gracious gift from my parents and from a small community of the faithful at the corner of Burnside and Delaware. My role in the reception of faith was limited to knowing a good thing when I see one and to keeping my hands and arms and heart open wide to receive this gift – grace upon grace.

Mine is the faith of saints: Mama Snow, who raised three young daughters alone and still somehow found time to pray for the rest of us, all her other children; Pauline, a gifted teacher of scriptures penned millennia earlier by her namesake; Wilsie, who fed us vanilla wafers and the word of God in the old Sunday School room with the red, tiger stripped couch just the right size for us kids; Carl, who always asked the Lord to “forgive our sins of omission as well as commission,” as we gathered at the Lord’s Table; and Preacher Black – I still cannot call him Bob – who received my confession of the faith that I received at his feet, and who baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. To this day, when I read or teach the Old Testament, it is his voice I hear echoing in the old sanctuary – that holy place that lives now only in my memory – echoing before we foolishly installed the acoustical tile ceiling, and it is his approval I seek. Yes, I received my faith from my parents and from a small community of the faithful at the corner of this world and the world to come: upon them be peace.

Faith is a mystery and a miracle. The gospel is proclaimed and one day you realize that you believe it. For some this comes at the end of a long, intellectual struggle – a perilous trek from one worldview to another. For others, it happens in an instant: there is a light and a voice, and, like Saul on the road to Damascus, you find yourself knocked off your ass and lying face down on a dusty road confronted by Jesus, himself. I used to envy people like these, the ones with grand testimonies: heroic struggles for truth or mystical revelations. They were the popular kids at youth group when it came time to tell your conversion experience, to witness to the faith that was in you.

I don’t believe I ever had a conversion experience, at least not one like these. There simply wasn’t a time I didn’t believe. There was no great struggle toward faith, no blinding revelation. For me, the only conversion possible was a rejection of faith; I could have been reborn an atheist, but not a believer. I was baptized – immersed – into Christ when I was around six, and I know that marked a fundamental change: buried with Christ in water, I was raised to walk in newness of life, a child of God, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit. While the good saints who raised me never used the word sacrament, I now know that baptism is one – that it is a sign through which God’s grace becomes active in a human life and fundamentally changes the reality of that life. I was different after baptism – I had become a partaker of the divine nature – but not different in terms of my faith. I believed before, I believed after, and I believe still.

Some will say that a received faith is no faith at all. Your father’s faith can’t save you. Neither can your mother’s. I understand that theological position. But I bear on my upper arm the mark of a smallpox vaccine given to me because of my parents’ faith in modern medicine. For all I know, that faith – their faith – saved me many times over. And I bear on my soul the mark, the seal, of the Holy Spirit given to me because of my parents’ faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I do know, with certainty, that their faith, which became my own, saved me. I believe because they believed and because they raised me in a community of folks who believed.

And so I have taken my place in the communion of saints – that mystical body of the faithful formed into the mystical Body of Christ – a fellowship spanning time and space, crossing cultures, bridging divides. Each Sunday when I celebrate Holy Eucharist – the feast of our Lord’s resurrection – this body gathers with the small community of worshippers in our chapel: the patriarchs are there, and the apostles; martyrs are there along with all those persecuted for the sake of righteousness; angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim and all the company of heaven join the celebration as we sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” and confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Mama Snow is there, and Pauline: Wilsie and Carl and Bob and Kathleen and Merl and Bill and Mary. And by God’s grace, through the faithfulness and prayers of these saints and countless others I will not know until that great day of Christ’s return, I am there.

The only story I can tell – the only story worth telling, I am convinced – is the story they passed along to me: a story in word and song and sacrament, a story in bread and wine and vanilla wafers, a story in water and blood and Spirit. This is my story. I thought you should know: I am a Christian.

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