“Communion of Saints” communio sanctorum is a phrase that was added to the Apostles Creed in the fifth century. The original Latin could mean both the fellowship of holy people and the participation in holy things, especially the sacred elements in the Eucharist. The two understandings apply for when Christians share in the body and blood of Christ they so share as members of one another. The word ‘holy’ Sanctus, Hagios, Hallow, is used here because Christians believe that while God alone is holy and transcendent, he makes himself present in the Blessed Sacrament and may no less be present in persons who are made holy. All Christians are thus described by the New Testament writers.
Every Christian is called to be a saint and indeed all Christians can be described as saints. The Holy Spirit makes them holy from their union with the risen life of Jesus. They are themselves the temple of God’s presence. The Eastern Church knows this union as Theosis. The other word ‘Communion’ communio, koinonia, also translated as ‘Fellowship’, means participation. The New Testament writers teach us that Christians participate in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in the lives of one another. The phrase which we translate ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit also translates as ‘the communion of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus told the dying thief on Good Friday that he would that very day be with Christ in Paradise he clearly indicated that this fellowship does not end with death. In the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a vivid sense of the union of earth and heaven. In the Liturgy, the Church on earth is sharing in the worship of heaven with the saints and the angels.
“All of us who partake of the one bread and the one cup do thou unite in one another in the communion of one Holy Spirit … and that we may find mercy and grace together with all thy saints who in all ages have been acceptable unto thee.” Both Western and Eastern Liturgies contain the words,
“Therefore with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven we laud and magnify Thee”.
During the middle ages, in the West, the belief in the Communion of Saints became exposed to excessive superstition and the concept of purgatory became corrupted by commercial ideas. There followed violent reactions in Reformation times and the abandonment of prayer for the departed and the veneration of the saints. In the Anglican Communion there has been a steady recovery of these ancient devotions: we now have Eucharists on All Saints Day (1st November) and Memorial Services on All Souls Day (2nd November). These dates are thought to be those of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which the early missionaries supplanted with the Christian festival. The original date, 13th May, dates from the early 7th century when the Pantheon in Rome, formerly a pagan temple, was consecrated as a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs. Thereafter it became All Saints’ Day, a day to honour all the saints, especially to honour those saints who didn’t have a festival day of their own. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III made the festival on 1st November universal throughout the Western Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday after Passover, a date closer to the original 13th May, and All Souls on the Saturday before Great Lent. During a service called Mnemosynon (Memorial) lighted candles are held throughout and relatives of the departed bring Koliva, a traditional dish of boiled wheat with almonds and pomegranates, to share with all those present in memory of the departed.
The old tradition of making ‘soul-cakes’ to share in memory of loved ones on All Souls Day has nearly died out in the West, but for those who wish to make some, here is an old local recipe.
Shropshire Soul Cakes
750g plain flour
1 teaspoon yeast
100g caster sugar
1½ tsp allspice
Preheat the oven to 220°c, gas mark 7.
Place the flour and yeast into a large bowl. Melt the butter and warm the milk. Beat the egg in a mug or small bowl. Add the butter, milk and egg to the flour. Mix together until smooth. Make into a ball. Cover with a large plastic bag or oiled clingfilm. Place in a warm spot and leave to rise for half an hour. Add the sugar and allspice to the dough and knead until well combined. Place onto a lightly floured board and roll. Form into round buns, place in the hot oven and bake for about 20 minutes until golden.
They taste good warm, with butter and jam.
Featured Image: The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Wiki Images, Public Domain