Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses

By Fr. Jack Treloar, SJ | For The Compass | August 10, 2022

Sometimes the short readings given for our consideration in the Lectionary drop us into the conclusion of a longer argument. This is the case with the reading from Hebrews. The first line reads, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Heb. 12:1). This verse is the conclusion of an explanation the author started in Chapter 11.

In order to understand the reference to a “cloud of witnesses,” we must return to some material that occurs earlier in the letter. Hebrews was probably written for a Jewish community who was having trouble staying faithful to their conversion to Jesus, the Christ. In this sense, the letter encourages them in their new faith. In Chapter 11, the author lists famous saints of the Jewish tradition — Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Samuel and others. By referring to the cloud of witnesses, the author wants the Jewish converts to realize that their Christian faith is grounded deeply in their own Jewish traditions.

As 21st-century Christians, we can expand the cloud of witnesses to include our heroic Christian men and women — Peter, Paul and the Theresas of Avila, Lisieux and Kolkata, Scholastica, John XXIII, John Paul II and so many more. The cloud of witnesses also includes all those good and holy people we have met and known from our own lives. Usually, we call this cloud of witnesses the “Communion of Saints.”

The cloud of witnesses initially helps us to rid ourselves “of every burden and sin that clings to us.” We can sometimes think of the heroes of the Jewish Scriptures and the canonized saints as too distant to really care about us, but our text tells us that we are surrounded by this cloud. In a word, we are immersed in their lives, words and works. All we have to do is pray that we might be like them, for like water in a swimming pool, they surround us and bear us up.

The cloud also functions as an encouragement when we tire during the journey or race toward heaven. St. Ignatius of Loyola, when he was recuperating from a battlefield wound, read the lives of the saints and, eventually, came to the realization that he could do what St. Francis of Assisi did or what St. Dominic did. After he recuperated, he set off as a pilgrim and, with perseverance, wrote the Spiritual Exercises and helped found a religious order. He was running the race of bringing the Gospel to his world.

The cloud of witnesses continually surrounds us in this life, even when we are not aware of it. The heroes of the Jews, our heroic saints and all good people help us to persevere in our race toward the Lord who loves us.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.

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