Section on the Essence of the Sanctoral Cycle, Part 1

Since we looked last at the seasons of the Temporal Cycle, it’s time to head into the sanctoral cycle. This part is currently incomplete. There’s more that needs to be said here as you’ll see. I’ll indicate some of where we’re headed at the end.

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The Temporal cycle that celebrates in time the high points of the Creed and, in doing so, the main movements in the life of Jesus is mirrored by the Sanctoral cycle that celebrates Christ and his Church in and through the heroes of the faith. The Temporal cycle operates along two major axes: Incarnation and Redemption. That is, the seasons of Lent and Easter focus our attention upon how God acts to redeem us; the seasons of Advent and Christmas along with attendant fests involving Mary and John the Baptist focus us on God becoming human. The best way to think about the Sanctoral cycle is not as some other separate thing that gets plopped on top of the Temporal cycle to confuse it. Rather, the Sanctoral cycle is the logical next step from the Temporal cycle that flows from the life of Jesus and shows us the fusion of both Redemption and Incarnation as they intersect within human lives. The Sanctoral cycle shows us the promise and potential of humanity reconciled with God; it gives us vivid examples of redeemed humans who incarnated Christ in their very flesh to the wonder of the watching world.

Now, some people are a bit wary of the Sanctoral cycle. And that’s understandable. There’s a wide range of attitudes with in the Episcopal Church and within Anglicanism as a whole towards the heroes of the faith and how we decide to remember them in church. A lot of this has to do with the way that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches honor these heroes and desires to—alternately—emulate, learn from, or reject what it is that they do. Some Episcopalians are fine with the Sanctoral cycle and are perfectly comfortable using the “s-word” (saints). Others are much more leery of it, and see the notion of saints as inherently troublesome and problematic. The prayer book and associated materials tries to respect the diversity of opinion yet still providing for liturgical celebration of these heroes. We’re not going to solve the difference of opinion here, but, instead, will try to use the principles of the prayer book to wrestle with the topic in a way that helps us touch the heart of it: the intersection of the dual mysteries of redemption and incarnation.

A Baptismal Ecclesiology: Where the Rubber Hits the Road

The best way to untangle this matter, it seems to me, is to cut to the heart of the matter. It starts with Baptism. One of the real achievements of our prayer book is its embrace of the sacrament of Baptism and the restoration of its place as one of the two great sacraments of the Church. You won’t spend very long around arguing Episcopalians without somebody tossing out the phrase “baptismal ecclesiology” or referring to “the Baptismal Covenant.” That’s as it should be, yet these phrases can seem a bit daunting to when you run across them the first few times.

What is “baptismal ecclesiology” and how does it matter?

Baptism joins us to Christ. Using the language of drowning, Paul speaks of us dying in the waters of Baptism with Jesus and rising from it sharing in his new risen life. This is the moment when we get plugged into the life of God. It can be seen as an individual and individualistic event—me and Jesus. And yet, that’s not how the New Testament or the Church have talked about it. It’s not just me and Jesus—it’s me and Jesus and everybody else who is likewise plugged into Jesus; it’s all of us who are connected by Christ into the life of God. That’s the heart of what the Church is: recognizing all those who are fellow travelers with us by virtue of Baptism. The Church is defined by Baptism. We fail to see the Church properly if we’re only looking at the clergy.  Or if we’re only looking at the people who decide to show up to our church on Sundays. A real, robust baptismal ecclesiology takes seriously that everyone who is, was, or will be baptized shares in a common bond, the union with Christ, without regard to church attendance or denominational lines. Furthermore, Paul’s insistence that baptismal life is a sharing in Christ’s risen life means that we don’t see the line between the living and the dead quite so starkly either.

I fear, despite all of our talk of a baptismal ecclesiology, that we tend to have a “parochial” view of the Church. And I mean that in two different senses of the word. I mean it in the word’s negative sense when “parochial” is used to mean short-sighted and narrow; I also mean it in the word’s most literal sense as it relates to the parish we go to on Sundays. We tend to think of “Church” as restricted to the people we see around us—and that’s a mistake. If we take Baptism seriously, we have to see Church not only as the people within our walls, but also the folks in the church down the street (even if we don’t agree with them on some things), and all the folks who didn’t actually make it to our church or another church, but also including the whole host of those who have gone before us and we see no longer. If the act of Baptism replaces our life, plugging us into the life of God in some fundamental, meaningful way—however we understand that—than the dead share the very same life that we do. We are all bound together into the energies of God. What we do with the dead, how we understand them and our relation to them finds focus liturgically in two days at the start of November: the Feast of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, historically shortened to All Souls. If we want to do the Sanctoral cycle right, we have to start with these two days and what they mean for us.

All Saints and All Souls

If we’re going to approach this topic from a prayer book perspective, than the place we have to begin is one of humility. We don’t have all the answers here, and that’s ok—we have enough to get by on. The first thing to note is that, despite what you might think, the Bible doesn’t spend very much time at all talking about death or what happens after we die. Christian tradition has filled in a whole lot of stuff here and often in some fairly imprecise, rather sketchy, and often down-right contradictory ways. Some of our most treasured notions about what happens when we die are more a product of cultural myths than anything rooted in Scripture and historic Christian teaching. Frankly, that’s part of what makes this discussion a bit tricky—we are touching on treasured notions. It’s certainly not my intention to harm anyone’s faith or pass judgment on what you were taught formally or not. As a result, I don’t plan on arguing against certain presentations of the Christian after-life, but rather want to stick closely to the words and intentions of the prayer book.

In the proper preface for the Commemoration of the Dead, we say, “to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended” (BCP, 382). That’s the foundation upon which everything else is built. Because of our faith in the resurrection and the promises of Baptism, death is a shift—not an end. From that fundamental recognition, the prayer book then makes reference to two general groups: the departed and the saints. Most often, these are placed in juxtaposition with one another. For instance, in the various forms of the Prayers of the People we routinely mention both the departed and the saints in close proximity: “Give to the departed eternal rest; Let light perpetual shine upon them. We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy; May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.” (Form III, BCP, 387) and “We commend to your mercy all who have died, that your will for them may be fulfilled; and we pray that we may share with all your saints in your eternal kingdom.” (Form IV, BCP, 389) and “For all who have died in the communion of your Church, and those whose faith is known to you alone, that, with all the saints, they may have rest in that place where there is no pain or grief but life eternal, we pray to you, O Lord.” (Form V, BCP, 391). Too, we have Commons appointed for the Dead and for the Saints. But how do we interpret these two groups? Are they distinct or does one shade into the other?

I’d suggest that the prayer book is being deliberately vague on these points. The clearest statement that I can find that sheds light on the situation comes from the Prayers of the People in the Rite I Eucharist which reflects the language that we inherited from classical Anglicanism: “And we bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow the good examples of all thy saints, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom” (BCP, 330). This language affirms that the saints of God are partakers of the heavenly kingdom, and also envisions a process of growth that is not ended by physical death.  The pattern that is laid out here reflects a classical threefold division into the Church Militant—we the living, the Church Triumphant—those departed who currently enjoy the fullness of God’s presence, and the Church Expectant—those departed who do not yet experience the full presence of God but who shall as that process of growth is played out and as God’s promises in Baptism and Eucharist are fully delivered in the final consummation of all things.

Keeping these categories in mind, the Feast of All Saints celebrates the mighty deeds of God in and through the Church Triumphant; the Feast of All Souls recalls to us the Church Expectant who shall yet enjoy that final consummation.

Now we get to the tricky part: if we’re saying that we have two buckets—who goes where, and why?

Well, that’s complicated…

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Ok—that’s it for today. From this point I’m heading back to Baptism in order to define the two major definitions for “saint” and talk about when and where we use them. I’m trying to decide if my usual spiel on patron saints, where that notion comes from and how/why it informs this practice is worth the space and is necessary for this kind of work. Part of the wrap-up of this section includes the difference between secular days of memorial/remembrance and the Christian celebration of saints’ days; the main difference, of course, is that the secular world celebrates the dead while we celebrate the living…

More later!

3 Replies to “Section on the Essence of the Sanctoral Cycle, Part 1”

  1. Derek:
    A couple more items to include in the general survey of the BCP treatment of and attitude to the saints. The collect on p.199 (and reappearing on p. 250) which speaks: “Grant us that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer….”; and the collect on p. 504: “…we pray that encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship…” And the beautiful seasonal blessing on p. 26 of “The Book of Occasional Services” for All Saints’ Day: “May God who has bound us together in the company of the elect, in this age and the age to come, attend to the prayers of his faithful servants on your behalf, as he hears your prayers for them.”
    These are important for me because they are almost the only places where anything like classical invocation of saints appear in official documents. I am particularly taken by the last one because of the union between the saints and God—with God both hearing their prayers for us and our prayers for them.

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