In North Carolina, there is a parish called the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion: the Churches of the Frescoes. The parish has two worship spaces: St. Mary’s in West Jefferson, and Holy Trinity in Glendale Springs. The North Carolina artist, Ben Long, painted several frescoes between the two churches depicting an expectant Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus crucified, and the Last Supper. Long-time parishioners give lectures to groups that come to learn about the frescoes at the two churches.
One of the interesting anecdotes that a guide will tell you is that at the time Ben Long painted the first fresco, which was of Mary, he had used his pregnant wife as the model of the body and then used a waitress they met in Hickory as the model for the face. Furthermore, in his fresco of the Last Supper at Holy Trinity, he used people he knew as the models, including the priest who was there at the time. The priest requested to be painted as one of the servants who was carrying plates out of the room, so he is forever seen in the right-hand corner of that fresco, unobtrusively carrying his precious pottery away.
The fact that Mr. Long used real people to paint well-known saints encourages us to pause and think about what it must have been like for the models to pose, knowing that they were being painted as a saint – a person who was considered holy and benevolent – when they may have not felt that way themselves.
The experience of the Churches of the Frescoes puts in mind an even more recent project that has been done about saints. There is a church in downtown Los Angeles called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The Cathedral has very tall walls in the sanctuary on which the design team wanted to hang particular works of art. They hired artist John Nava, who developed what they now call the “Communion of Saints” tapestries. The tapestries have 135 saints and blesséd from throughout the ages on them, as well as 12 untitled figures, including children of all ages, to represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst.
The curious thing about the process of developing these tapestries was that the artist did not have many depictions of earlier saints in order to know what they looked like. He used death masks and early artwork to assist his images, but then he gathered people at random off the streets who looked like the particular saints he was trying to paint – people he saw at coffee shops and restaurants, people at the beach, people walking the dog, people like you and me.
Most people were flattered to be models. Some were believers, others were not, but when they were interviewed about the process, they almost all said the same thing: being a saint, being dressed in the clothes and learning about their saint’s story, made them want to act like the saint they were modeling. They felt better about life and felt connected to the world in a deeper way than ever before. And the fact is, they are. They are connected to the saints they modeled and they are connected to us and to Christ, as is seen when you enter the Cathedral’s sanctuary. The saints line the walls and they are all gazing toward the cross above the altar, marching toward it, just as the real saints did before them, and as we continue to do each week, including today, when we come to the altar at Eucharist, and as the next generations will do in the future. It is a powerful vision.
Now, we may not know each saint’s story, but we do know Jesus’ story, just as they did, and that is a powerful connector. It is a connection that is never lost or weakened, even though they are not present on earth with us. The gospel accounts tell us about Jesus, so we know of him in the historic sense, but our faith is what connects us with the mystery of life in Jesus. We hear the gospel stories about Him and stories of the saints’ encounters of Him and know our own stories, all of which are part of this greater story of life. We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection each week at the Eucharist, and in turn, are “re-membered,” brought together, united in the Body of Christ. United in our common faith and story. And this re-membering, this unity, transforms us, so that we may go out renewed and strengthened by the knowledge of our belonging to God and of those who came before us and will come after us, belonging to God, too.
As Christians, we carry on Jesus’ mission of transforming the world by spreading the kingdom of God in our daily lives. And in a way, isn’t that what we do with any loved one not among us? Many times, we carry on their vision and make it ours so it will continue to be carried into the future. By living out the Christian mission, we honor God, we honor each other, and we honor the lives of those who came before us, who also held that same mission. Like them, once we have come to Jesus Christ, we are His own and remain that way, and will join the great multitude that was talked about in our scripture from Revelation, worshiping God and singing: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”