I suspect nearly everyone is familiar with the now iconic opening of the first Star Wars film in which a holographic figure of the Princess sends a message saying: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.” There was palpable desperation in her plea. Perhaps these days we are feeling a bit like that, only in reality our hope is placed not in the imperfect, but in the perfect, that is, in the Lord Jesus. It is for this reason that I love the motto of the Holy Cross religious congregations: “Ave Crux, Spes Unica” which translates to “Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope.” It is in the cross of Christ that victory was won, and that victory offers real hope as we try to overcome the challenges of life and live as disciples. We do not have to be a prince or princess (though we are ‘a royal priesthood’) to send such a message to God when we are suffering or feeling stressed by the burdens we carry; all we need is to trust in the promises of Christ as we send our prayer to Him. It is also important that we remember, and therefore rely upon, the “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us into Heaven, the saints and holy ones. (Hebrews 12:1) We have an army of saints literally at our disposal to intercede for us, helping to handle all that comes our way. But in all of that, it is the power of the Cross and the Lord who hung upon it, victorious over death, from which all hope arises.
In the Letter to the Hebrews the verses which refer to this great cloud of witnesses are filled with a powerful message of hope. “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 while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus….” (Hebrews 12:1-2) In these verses the author connects those growing in holiness as they persevere in the faith, with the Lord who is the victor. His death, then, is the connection with all those who have gone before us ‘marked with the sign of faith’ and who now can intercede on our behalf. This refers to all the faithful, not just the canonized. Therefore we can and should ask the assistance of our departed loved ones as well as those known as the officially recognized Saints in the church.
As I reflected upon the cloud of witnesses it seems clear that it includes all holy ones, not just the ones who came after Jesus, but also those who came before such as Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses, Deborah, Esther, David, the prophets, and all those who remained committed to the covenant. Included are Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptizer, Joseph,* the apostles, the known and unknown martyrs, and all the faithful who attained Heaven right up to the present day. In short, we have quite a number of friends upon whom to call in time of trouble; all these are tied together in the Cross of Christ and therefore in the sacraments that flow from Him. What binds us together in this great cloud is love.
We may wonder why the author of Hebrews referred to this ‘group’ as witnesses. The author** was alluding to the testimony they gave to the faith based on how they lived their lives in Christ. In other words, the holy ones point to the victory in Christ that comes to those who persevere in living faithfully as disciples. But what makes them so powerful is that they ‘reached the finish line,’ to continue the metaphor of the passage, not by their own power, but by relying on Jesus in whom they placed their hope. With each successive generation their number continues to grow such that we have more support than ever. It makes sense, therefore, to enlist their assistance as we bear whatever burdens we may have. In addition to the Saints, we can ask the assistance of the Holy Souls in Purgatory who can pray for us as we can pray for them; perhaps enlisting their help speeds the process of their purgation (or cleansing)! Finally, let us remember to pray to our own dear departed asking their assistance as well; these faithful are also part of the cloud. Thus, we have a powerful army of loved ones and canonized ones who can pray for us when we are distracted by daily responsibilities and cares. As we go to these holy ones, our hope enlarges and perhaps our own holiness will grow as we pray to them for comfort, perseverance, growth in patience, kindness, compassion, mercy, love, and encouragement to live as witnesses, too.
In short, as we pray to and with the holy ones in that great cloud of witnesses, our connection to them deepens as we await the day when we will join them in Heaven where we, too, will become more powerful in intercession for those still on earth. Yes, we begin the process of joining them while in this life when we commit ourselves to Christ. We all need help to maintain our commitment, to fight against all that which attacks our faith and our morals, all that seeks to divide, scatter, weaken, and thwart the Kingdom of God. It is in and through the Cross and the love of Jesus who hung upon it that we unite ourselves with the cloud of witnesses. In this way, the Cross is our only Hope!
May we turn to the saints and the prayerful intercession they provide! May the Holy Ones unite us with our only true hope: the Cross of Jesus Christ and the victory which He already won! And may we aspire to grow in holiness so that we may become one with the cloud of witnesses! Let us meet in the Cross of Christ! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I did not forget the Blessed Virgin Mary, Most Holy. I did not name her because she is the Queen of Heaven and as such she is the Queen of the entire cloud of witnesses.
** The author of this letter is unknown. What is known is that while it contains much of the teaching of St. Paul, he did not write this letter, evidenced in the differences in the syntax used throughout as well as the fact that it is not even a letter, but rather more like an essay: it is totally unlike the format of his letters and bears no address. There is a theory that this letter was written by a woman, Prisca, also known as Priscilla, but it could have been Barnabas or another close associate of Paul. (Reference: page 1323-1324 in the NABRE Bible)
1. Image, Jeanie's Father Beneath the Cross, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this image and a large variety of icons at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/312-jeanies-father-beneath-the-cross-william-hart-mcnichols.html
2. Fresco, The Cloud of Witnesses, by Giusto Menabuoi, (1320-1-1391) Dome Fresco, Padua Baptistry, Padua, Italy.
3. Painting, The Communion of Saints by Ira Thomas. “Waves of individual persons are united in an embrace for all eternity in Heaven.”
4. My photo, walking path in Estes Park, Colorado.
5. My photo, two ducks sitting on a branch.
6. My photo, mountains near Silverthorne, Colorado.
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart