October 31, 2011

All Hallows Eve and the Cloud of Witnesses

                Baptists have always been rather suspicious of saints—perhaps that is why we have not focused more on nurturing that quality of holiness.  Early Baptists fled from the excesses of the cult of veneration, and hence we are left with an insufficient theology of the saints.  Saints, literally “holy ones” feature widely in Scripture, and we are called as the people of God to that vocation.

                Sirach 44:1-10 offers a hymn of praise in honor of ancestors.  Many are worthy of commendation: wise rulers, composers, writers, peacemakers, and prophetic leaders; but “of others there is no memory; they have perished as if they had never existed. . . as if they had never been born. . . “ (v. 9).  This text from the Apocrypha—still used in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions—offers two urgings.  First, it is important to remember those who have gone before.  They continue to shape the present as their memory endures, and we can profit from their example  Second, we are to strive to live so as to “leave behind a name” (v. 8), i.e., to be remembered.  Life is ephemeral enough, and without holy living, one is not likely to be remembered.  Without a developed theology of resurrection, the Hebrew Bible stresses the importance of being remembered by one’s family.

                Preachers have long puzzled about the “cloud of witnesses” noted in Hebrews 12:1-2.  You remember the context: all of chapter 11 lists those figures whose faith makes them exemplary encouragement to the living.  Chapter 12 begins with the exhortation to perseverance, seeing as “we are surrounded with this cloud of witnesses.”  Interpreters usually refer to an image of a great stadium in which a race is occurring; the witnesses are in the spectator seats, cheering for those in the race.  Not only do we remember those who have gone before with Jesus, they remember us!

                In a sense, then, there is a reciprocal relationship between these two parts of Christ’s body.  We are encouraged by the witness of the saints; we remember their lives and cling to the hope of resurrection together.  Their witness is tested by our faithfulness, and their perfection depends upon ours. We discover their nearness in the community of God through prayer, eucharist, and “mystic sweet communion.”  The unity of Christ’s body cannot be severed, even by death.

                On this All Hallows Eve, we remember the saints; we strive to be worthy of being remembered; and we seek encouragement from those who remember us.  And we pray with St. Cyprian:

                                We must not weep for our brothers and sisters whom the call of the Lord has withdrawn from this world, since we know that they are not lost,

                                But have gone on ahead of us; they have left us like travelers, navigators, in order to lead the way. . . If we  believe in Christ, if we have faith in

                                His word and in his promises. . . let us go with trustful joy toward him with whom we shall live and reign eternally.


                Molly T. Marshall

                                Central seeks to form women and men to be spiritually healthy and humanly sensitive—significant practices that shape saints.  To learn more, continue visiting our website.

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