So Great A Cloud of Witnesses

…who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.  And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 11:33-12:2)

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Among my most beloved chapters of Scripture is the “roll-call of faith” found in Hebrews 11. There, St. Paul recalls the bold acts of faith and martyrdom endured by the saints of God. Beginning with the account of Righteous Abel who was slain by his brother Cain, and continuing through the Patriarchs and Prophets, the Apostle describes these lives of faith “of whom the world was not worthy.” Its summary and conclusion are found in the passage quoted above.

There are at least three ways to read the passage: the first is to take it simply as a literary device in which we are being exhorted to remember these great historic figures of faith. Of course such a reading does not make sense of their “imperfection.” In what sense are literary examples imperfect or incomplete?

A second reading would be that of the typical “two-storey” universe. In this reading the saints have died and taken their place with Christ far away in heaven. From this place, far-removed, they watch us and cheer us on. This second reading reminds me of the popular 90’s song “From a Distance” (it won a Grammy for the best song of year in 1991).  It’s pop theology told us:

…From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,
it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.
God is watching us from a distance.

My first reaction to this song was to think: “from a distance Mars looks inhabited.” Primarily it seemed clear to me that God does not see us “from a distance.” God is “everywhere present and filling all things” as described in the hymnography of the Orthodox Church. We may have images of thrones and golden streets, but if such images mean that God dwells at a distance then they are deeply misleading.

This third interpretation not only understands that the great cloud of witnesses who surround us are not at all far away. The same point is emphasized with the assertion that “they shall not be made perfect apart from us.” Their perfection or “completion” is intimately joined to our own perfection. This is the classic doctrine of the communion of saints. Their lives, even their perfection and completion in Christ, is not something that can be considered on an individual basis. Our completion in Christ is, finally, the completion of our life in the Church, His body.

There is a commonplace expression in Western theology of the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant – making a two-storey distinction between our lives here and the saints’ lives elsewhere. However, the teaching of the Church as found in her Creeds, clearly states that the Church is “One.” “Christ is not divided,” St. Paul taught. Thus the “cloud of witnesses” that surround us, not only cheer for us, but participate in our struggle. They are not made perfect or complete apart from us, but we are not made perfect apart from them. The perfection we have in Christ is one perfection – Christ Himself, the “author and finisher” of our faith.

Death is generally received as a deep wound. The loss we encounter is not without its accompanying grief. But our death is also the death of Christ, because His life becomes our life. It is not the life or perfection of those we love that establishes the foundation of our faith.

For none of us lives to himself, and no man dies to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

The foundation of our life – and the foundation of the lives of the one family of faith is the same foundation: the life and perfection of Christ – both author and finisher of our faith.

I rejoice that in Christ, nothing is lost. My grief itself, like death, will be trampled down by the death of Christ, and in Him I will share in the One life of His saints. Glory to God!

Comments

  1. George Engelhard says

    I find so much for my journey in your posts. I just allowed myself to realize that the saints and holy angels are right here with me. It is glorious!

  2. says

    Leonard, I suppose. Though I only know of the two-storey (Triumphant/Militant) split – which is already one more split than the Scriptures and the Fathers allow.

  3. Reader James says

    In my Episcopal confirmation class we were taught that the church was tripartite: militant, expectant and triumphant, and that the three sections of the church (nave, choir, sanctuary) reflected this! I think I furrowed my brow on this one, even 40 years ago.

    One of the joys of becoming Orthodox is to hear no contradiction to what I believe and experience, if partially: that we already live in the Cloud. Thank you for your post.

  4. Kathy says

    After reading this post, it doesn’t seem helpful that icons are sometimes described as “windows to heaven.” It’s as if the subject of the icon is in heaven and we glimpse them from “down here.”

    Maybe the term isn’t a problem if we think of heaven as more of a state than a place.

  5. George Engelhard says

    Icons are not windows into another reality (that is two story), but are windows into a “part” of this present reality of which we, in our fallen state, are unaware.
    A lesson from geometry that helps me understand the one story universe:
    -Everything in time and space has dimension and duration
    -Everything in time and space has a point of location
    -A point, by mathematical definition, has no dimension or duration and thus does not exist in time and space but in eternity and infinity
    – The created “part” (in time and space) and the uncreated “part” (in eternity and infinity) of the one story universe are joined at the point of existence

  6. George Engelhard says

    This is in response to Reader James comment:
    I, too, found no contradiction in what I believed and experienced when I first joined the Church and read The Orthodox Church by Bishop Ware.

  7. Jane says

    Your post reminds me of two wonderful hymns I knew from childhood (mainly Presbyterian) and young adulthood (Episcopalian): “Onward Christian Soldiers,” one verse of which begins “We are not divided, all one body we…” and “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”

    One of the great experiences of my life as a “baby” Christian (the year of my confirmation in the Scottish Episcopal Church, my graduation from university, and my marriage) was following the Cross in procession around the church singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

    A great deal of Orthodox theology is to be found in the great “Protestant” hymns (some of which are translations of very early Catholic and Orthodox hymns), and it was so embedded in my heart that when the Lord led me to the Orthodox Church I recognized it as my eternal home.

    Glorty and thanks be to God.

  8. Kathy says

    Thank you, George, for your geometrical illustration. It will have to brew. My geometry instructor was a kind man who gave me a D.

    To Reader James’ and your comments that you found no contradiction in the Church in what you believe and experience, my slow journey to Orthodoxy was punctuated by many “I knew it!” moments, especially as I learned the Orthodox approach to death.

    That said, the process of dismantling my carefully-constructed idea structure that had (sort of) sustained me that far was excruciating. If not for the glimpses of great beauty that sometimes appeared along the way, I would’ve lost heart.

    I think that for many, their questions about Orthodoxy eventually settle into one essential question. For some, it’s “Where is the Church?” For me, it was “What is truth?” I wish this blog had existed at the time. I thought that truth was a thing to be grasped or even wrestled into submission. If only I read or thought or listened to the right person enough, the other shoe would drop. Like Pilate, I asked Truth, “What is truth?” and didn’t realize He was standing right in front of me. Truth, of course, isn’t a thing; Truth is a Person and can only be approached as such. Once that was clear, the only possible response was, “Take me with You.”

  9. George Engelhard says

    The Truth is a Person in whom we participate. The Truth takes us into Himself as a member of His Body and we become the Truth. We take the Truth in to ourselves through the Eucharist and the Truth becomes us.

  10. George Engelhard says

    Jane,
    I invite you to obtain an Antiochian Synod Western Rite hymnal. It contains Western hymns that are Orthodox in there theology.

  11. says

    @Kathy: I find it interesting that you use the word “excruciating” to describe the dismantling of the false notions you held. The word means “out of the cross”. You mentioned that it was the “glimpses of great beauty” that sustained you along the way.

    In this way, you are following the path of our Savior, Who, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame”. :)

  12. Kathy says

    Steve Allen: Sometimes our words know more than we know, or at least more than we know that we know.

    As for beauty, in my part of the evangelical world, there wasn’t really a category for it. If anything, it was a little suspect. My brain said to cautiously back away from the beauty I perceived in Orthodoxy. But among the many quiet conversions along the way was one morning standing in the Divine Liturgy, knowing that to walk away from the rather wild beauty there would be a very great diminishing of whatever light I had been given.

  13. says

    @Kathy:

    I know what you mean! :)

    I was raised Baptist. There are glimmers of beauty available there, but there is a lot more counterfeit beauty. The main reason I left the Baptist world was that I knew that little bit of beauty HAD to be found in it’s (read: His) fullness somewhere. Like you, I found it – in the Orthodox Church. :)

  14. Joe says

    George, I’ve been pondering the existence of points for years (my family stop their ears when I talk about them). Points have no dimension or duration, so they don’t exist. But, I can identify precisely where a point is — it’s mappable. So it must exist! I’ve always thought the answer had to somehow be spiritual. The connection you make to the one-storey universe is brilliant! Thank you.

  15. says

    I rejoice that in Christ, nothing is lost. My grief itself, like death, will be trampled down by the death of Christ, and in Him I will share in the One life of His saints.

    This says it all and my hope is that one day I will also share this life.

  16. says

    Thanks Fr Stephen. I for one am glad for that cloud of witnesses and the comfort of a one story universe. Your final point is poignant and precise:

    “I rejoice that in Christ, nothing is lost. My grief itself, like death, will be trampled down by the death of Christ, and in Him I will share in the One life of His saints. Glory to God!”