18 Aug 2013
“… we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses …” (Heb. 12:1) (+)
Every Monday I go into the Frontier Cable Access Television studio to edit that Sunday’s Mass. You would think that after all this time I would have the process down pat, but I still have to take a look at my notes so that I can get the video off of the camera and onto the television. Well, the other day I was reassured that I was not the only one who experiences technical difficulties. While I was there, another FCAT user was at another computer editing one of the station’s music programs. A real nice guy. He had a headset on to listen to his program. He had the volume control maxed-out and still the sound was not coming through all that well for him to hear. The station manager and I could hear the music even though we shouldn’t be able to if the headphones are connected. So the manager goes over to him, takes a look at his computer, and holds up an unconnected cord for the guy to see. His headphones weren’t plugged in. As a matter of fact, his headphones were actually blocking the residual sound that the rest of us were hearing in the studio. When he plugged in the cord, the music came blaring through the headset.
Today we hear from the Epistle to the Hebrews of this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. The unknown author is speaking about the living tradition that remains with us of those who came before us in the faith. He’s telling his readers that Christianity didn’t just appear out of nothing. Even though they were some of the earliest believers in Jesus, they were part of the continuing presence of God throughout time. And that in time, they themselves would become part of that great cloud of witnesses for a future generation, a generation like ours. Hebrews is telling us that the past is no more spiritually authentic than the present. He’s writing to very early converts of Judaism to Christianity, and he’s writing because it seems like they’re beginning to waiver. They’re starting to second guess their choice to follow Jesus. Their religious traditions remained a powerful force in their lives and they were wondering if they were giving it all up to be followers of Christ.
And this is where Hebrews steps-in and speaks about tradition pointing toward a goal. Tradition isn’t about dragging the present back to the past; it’s about bringing the past into the present. Hebrews is telling its readers that the religious heroes of their tradition aren’t calling them back to where they were in their own day. Rather, those heroes have come forward as part of a living tradition into that present moment as a great cloud of witnesses surrounding those earliest Christians. And the story continues from there. The first Christian believers are now part of the great cloud of witnesses who have moved forward and who now surround us. And if we can remain faithful and seek out God in our world today, then future generations of believers can count us as part of their great cloud of witnesses.
Front and center on the refrigerator at the rectory, I have clipped out of the newspaper an article about how painful it is to have an unwanted tattoo removed from your body. I put it there so that my daughters would think long and hard before they ever decided to scar their bodies in this way. What looks cute and insightful at 20 may not look so cute and insightful at 40 or later. As they get older, it’s going to be their choice, but I just want them to think about the consequences. Well, this story about tattoos was shared with someone who is an Evangelical, a person who reads the Bible literally and who sees it as forever unchanging and inerrant. Their answer to the tattoo question was simple: the Bible says no. They’re referring to Leviticus 19:28: “Do not lacerate your bodies for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves.”
This is but one command in what is called the Holiness Code, and its purpose was to distinguish Israel from her pagan neighbours: their religious practices were consciously disavowed by Israel’s religious practice. Thus, if they practiced fortune telling (19:26), for example, then to be holy you better not. Think about that the next time you look at your horoscope. If their men trimmed their beards and shaved their faces, then the men of Israel should grow beards (19:27). Think about that the next time the Patriots are playing at Gillette Stadium. And if the pagans marked their bodies “for the dead,” (19:28) then be darn sure that tattoos are the mark of the devil and must be forbidden. The horoscope is on the comics page of the newspaper – where it belongs. My wife would kill me if I grew a beard. We disregard these biblical laws without a guilty conscience, but then choose to follow the one about tattoos? It makes no logical sense to believe in the Bible this way. This is to lock God into the past as we see it. This is the exact opposite of what Hebrews is talking about when it speaks about being surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses. We don’t go back to them. They move forward to be with us. Faith is a journey. Faith is progress. Faith is leading us somewhere, and not defined by us, but by God.
This is not a rejection of the past. This is a continuation of the past. And we will be a continuation of the past too someday if we, as Hebrews says, “persevere in running the race that lies before us.” (12:1) God is calling to us today just as much as He did in generations past. He’s calling us somewhere, and we have the privilege of helping the faith to move toward that goal. But just like that guy at FCAT, we have to plug-in and pay attention to our faith to hear God. Sometimes what we do and don’t do in our lives is like putting on the headphones that aren’t connected. Rather than helping us find God we have to make sure that we’re not blocking Him out even more so in our lives. God is still speaking to us. Let us pray this morning that we may be plugged in and ready to listen so that we can help to carry the faith forward so that we may be part of the surrounding cloud of great witnesses for our children and their children’s children. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo