St Pau’s, Carlinville
I’ve always been particularly fond of the opening words of the Prayer Book collect for All Saints’ Day: “O God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord…” Knit together. It’s such a homely image; “homely” in a good way—comforting, familiar, “warm and fuzzy.” I don’t myself knit—hopefully you don’t find that too much of a shock!—but I’ve watched people knit—well, not “watched” actually, but been casually in their presence while they’re knitting—and I’ve always found the process rather amazing, almost magical. There’s a skein of yarn on the floor, with a line leading up to a person sitting in a chair wielding a pair of needles, usually looking quite relaxed and contented and able to carry on a more-than-decent conversation and possibly even follow the plot of a TV show at the same time. And then, pretty soon, I’m looking at a pair of baby booties, or a sweater, or a shawl, or some other product that has been “knit together.” It’s something tangible and coherent and useful. A ball of yarn is just a ball of yarn, but a sweater is … something.
So, according to the Prayer Book at least, God knits. God has knit together his elect, his chosen ones—and that would presumably include you and me—God has knit us together—we who are just a ball of yarn on the floor—God has knit us together in “one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [his] Son Christ our Lord.” It’s important to keep two things firmly in mind here: First, the “one communion and fellowship” into which God has knit us includes both those whom we would call “living” and those whom we would call “dead.” The line in the creed about the “communion of saints” means, among other things, that the membrane separating this world from the world to come is an awfully thin one. Second, the phrase “mystical body” is biblical and theological code language for the Church. Through the waters of baptism, we, the living and the dead, have been knit together in the fellowship of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
I take the trouble to remind us of these facts because it is of the nature of our actual human experience in actual human life to make us forget them. Instead of feeling like we’ve been knit together into anything, we’re more likely to feel like we’re unraveling. Unexpected misfortune happens—our favorite restaurant or store closes—there’s a lot of that going around now thanks to the coronavirus—our favorite team loses, the elections don’t go the way we think they should—and I’m keenly aware that I’m saying this right at the climax of a toxic election season—the stock market tanks, the real estate market capsizes, seniors are forced to choose between the medicine they need and the food they need, we get an acid stomach when the first news we hear in the morning is of another surge in COVID19 cases and a steadily increasing death toll from the pandemic. The people in our life, from restaurant servers to spouses, let us down and fail to be what we need them to be. Too often, the people we need the most abandon us twice—first in their living and then in their dying. We experience loneliness and isolation and quiet desperation in abundance as we negotiate the hazards of life in this “broken and sinful world.”
In the end, we become depressed and cynical en route to terminal despair. This is the default condition of our society, my friends, and I’m not just talking about those who are on the margins—the poor, the homeless, those whose lives have been trashed by addiction. I’m talking about people who hold respectable jobs and live in respectable neighborhoods and who give every appearance of having their act together, of being on top of their lives. If three decades of pastoral ministry have taught me anything, it’s not automatically to trust the façade. I’ve seen behind it too many times. Americans are endemically lonely. And it’s no wonder; we are the descendants of people who made some very risky individual decisions, leaving countries where their ancestors had lived for generations and heading into uncharted territory. Without a strong sense of individualism, they would never have made it. But there’s a cost. They passed on their individualistic DNA to us, and we’re lonely. Medieval Europeans knew something about being “knit together.” Theirs was a communitarian society, and, in many ways, it was a more natural fit with the Christian notion of being “knit together in one communion and fellowship” than ours is. So, we’re lonely. And loneliness leads to cynicism, and cynicism leads to desperation and despair, and desperation and despair lead to violence and all sorts of other mayhem. So much of the world’s suffering is the result of violence, and so much violence is the result of desperation, and so much desperation flows from cynicism that is rooted in loneliness, a sense of being disconnected, unraveled, no longer knit together, no longer knit together in one anything, let alone one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so we come back to the objective fact of our baptism, which on this feast day is a tangible sign of our connection, our being a part of something—not a skein of yarn on the floor, but a sweater, or a shawl, or at least a pair of baby booties. We have been knit together—knit together with Christ and knit together with one another. We have been knit together with the communion of saints, the assembly of God’s holy ones, gathered around the heavenly throne waiving palm branches and wearing white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. We are no longer lonely, because we are connected to the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Church—the Church Militant feebly struggling on earth, the Church Expectant being led from glory to glory in Paradise, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven, those whose heroic witness to Christ we especially honor today. We are no longer lonely because we have been knit together into a fellowship of love and prayer. People may let us down, but we have been knit into Christ. Troubles may multiply, but we have been knit into Christ. We are part of the one communion and fellowship of all the saints, a fellowship of love and prayer that forms a support system in this world and a celestial cheering section in the next. This provides us with abundant hope in this world and unending joy in the world to come. All saints, all holy men and women of God, pray for us. Amen.