Monday, November 7, 2011

Thin Places

Celtic Christianity flourished in Ireland, Scotland, and certain parts of England from the fifth through the twelfth centuries. Much of our Western focus in Christian thinking has centered around the theological and administrative heritage we have received through the church in Rome, but over the course of the last several decades interest in Celtic history and spirituality has increased greatly.

Of particular interest to us on All Saints’ Sunday is the Celtic understanding of time. They believed that time was sacred and precious and they disregarded our sense of time as having a chronological order where one historical event follows another. For Celts, the preset contains within itself past events, which continue to live on, as well as the seeds of future events waiting to be born.

Without clear demarcations between past, present, and future, Celtic Christians interpreted history differently than we do. For instance, they made contemporaries of those who, historically speaking, never could have been together at the same place and time. In one early legend, the Celtic saints Brigit and Ita are portrayed as midwives to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Another legend describes Brigit and Patrick as being intimate friends, when in fact they never met. These details did not matter to the Celts because they believed that Brigit and Ita would have helped Mary had they been there and that Brigit and Patrick would have been friends had they been together at any particular chronological moment in time.

The early Celts also believed in what they called “thin places” – geographical locations scattered throughout the British Isles where a person can experience only a thin divide between past, present, and future times. In one legend, Maedoc climbs a golden ladder which reached from earth to heaven. Upon his return Maedoc tells a student who witnessed all of this that a friend had died and he went to meet him heaven to pay his respects.

While the Celtic legends may not be “historical,” they certainly give voice to a longing and a hope and an intuitive sense that we all have: namely, that which divides the living and the dead is very thin indeed. Many of us sense that we remain connected with our loved ones who have gone on before us. That connection, though mysterious and unexplainable, is unmistakable none the less. Celtic thought, which is woven into the tradition we have received from the Church, gives us permission to explore this relationship with a kind of freedom and imagination that articulates what we believe and what we sense.

I believe that heaven is a glorious place. It is a place where there is no pain, neither sighing, but life everlasting. It is a place of perfect freedom and perfect relationships where no one misuses their freedom in a way that dishonors God, demeans the image of God in us, or hurts another person. All of this is part of the biblical witness for the life to come.

But I believe more than this, specifically that those who are in heaven can choose to be with those of us who still walk this earth. Now, I do not believe that they are with us every minute of the day, just as no two people in life exist together without ever being apart. I believe that they join us at certain times for their own enjoyment and at other times at our request.

Who amongst us has not felt the presence of a long-lost loved one at a family baptism, wedding, or thanksgiving dinner table? A heaven where that is not possible would be no heaven at all! The living and the dead are not divided by distance, but by existence and that divide is a thin one indeed.

We might want to say that All Saints’ Day is a “thin day” – a day when the past and future do not seem to be quite as removed from the present. By remembering our loved ones we look backward to what has been. Through the act of baptism we look forward to what might be. Both past and future are with us in this present moment in a way that is powerful and clear.

And as we gather to worship and to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving, we come to a “thin moment;” the Lord’s Table being the thinnest place of all. This is the moment when the living and dead join their voices in glorious chorus:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The Sanctus is for me a thin moment. I close my eyes and feel myself lifted to that place beyond time and space where all persons, those before my day, those of my day, and those after my day, are present with Christ and are united in His one true sacrifice.

One professor of mine called it “Liturgical Time.” In liturgical time we can say that God brought us through the waters of the Red Sea. In liturgical time we can answer, “Yes, I was there when they crucified my Lord.” In liturgical time, the bread and the wine that we offer to God are united with the Body and Blood of Jesus and they become one in the same. And in liturgical time, the divide between the living and the dead is no divide at all. Liturgical time is not chronological time, but I know by faith that it exists and that it is real.

As I stand at the Altar and say or sing the Sanctus with my eyes closed, I visualize in my mind the angels and the archangels and all the hosts of heaven who are gathered with us. And I intentionally invite those people I have loved but see no longer to be with me, to be with us. Today my prayer is that you will sense the presence of those you love and miss. They are not far from us. I invite you to search for thin places and thin moments when you can be with them.

In closing, I ask you to turn to the Catechism on page 862 of the Book of Common Prayer. I would like to rehearse with you in its final three questions and answers:

Q. What is the communion of saints?
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Q. What do we mean by everlasting life?
A. By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.

Q. What, then, is our assurance as Christians?
A. Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.