The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 12:1-2: So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

harvested fieldIn churches around the world, on All Saints’ Sunday, the names of the dead are read.  Bells are tolled.  Portraits are shown.  Years of birth and death are printed.  Candles are lit.  Songs are sung.  This is the day that all saints are remembered.  The saints of the Church are remembered, and their names are spoken.

At the eve of winter, before the Advent season has begun, as the leaves are dried and fallen, and the fields lay bare, we celebrate all the saints.  At the eve of winter, when the wind feels a little stronger, and the grass starts each morning with a glistening sheet of frost, we look into the face of death.  The winter is coming.  The temperature will continue to drop.  The night will get longer.  In the midst of this changing season, we pause.  We stand.  We face the cold winter wind and in defiance, we speak the names of those we have lost.

We stand and face the coming reality.  In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.  We stand together facing the twin realities that we have all lost someone, and that we all face the same end.

In a culture hungry for immortality, we come together on All Saints Day and proclaim the good news that all will die.  Everywhere you look, there are those avoiding death.  Vampire and Zombie stories are insanely popular.  What is their common theme?  They revolve around the ability to cheat death.  All around, there are schemes – plans, pills, and procedures – to avoid aging.  Is there any stranger relationship we have in our culture than we have with aging? I cannot think of anything people try so hard to at the same time do and avoid.  So we mock a celebrity for getting saggy arms, or wrinkles on their face; and then we mock them for having plastic surgery.

On All Saints’ Day we can come together and acknowledge our own mortality.  And we name those we mourn. We say the words, and there is a physical response.  There is a release when we speak the name of those that have died.  So often, we hold in our memories and emotions.  We keep them bottled up, and often forgotten.  We’ve been told over the last year – or longer – that we should be “over it.”  It is doubtful anyone actually said the words, “get over it,” to someone who is mourning.  We hear it nonetheless.  We hear it from life that goes on.  We hear it from routines that settle back in.  We hear it in empty chairs that are never filled, phones that no longer ring, and arms that no longer embrace.  And so we get over it.  We move on, but never quite the same again.  When we speak the name, it is a chance to stop pretending.  Stop pretending that we have “gotten over it.”

Speaking the name is a chance look at death and say, “I will not forget.  She will not die.”  Death is no less a reality when we speak the name of those that we mourn, but when we gather for worship in the midst of death, we know that it does not have the final say.  We continue to run the race that is laid out in front of us because we know we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  The death of a mortal body that falls to the ground is no more the end of  life than the death of a seed that falls from a tree.

So we gather, surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.  We gather, surrounded by the saints of Christ.  We gather, singing the songs of the ages and reading the words of hope and healing.  We gather, praying to the Spirit that lives in us all, surrounds us, strengthens us, and empowers us.  We gather in the midst of life, and yet surrounded by death.  We gather and face the cold wind, and we are warmed by the hope of resurrection.  We are warmed by love that is eternal.  We are warmed by the assurance that nothing may separate us from the love we share in Christ.

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