20th SUNDAY-C- August 18, 2019
by Jude Siciliano, OP
In July I watched clips from the Tour de France. I don’t understand the rules of this annual world championship bicycle race. It lasts 23 days and Wikipedia calls it, "the world’s most prestigious and most difficult bicycle race," It was won by 22-year-old Egan Bernal, the first South American to win the tour.
I did not understand much of what was happening, but I was taken back by one thing I saw during the course of the race. Thousands of spectators lined the roads cheering and waving flags. But, unlike other sporting events, they were not behind barricades. Instead they were on the road, barely leaving room for the racing bicyclists. As the riders passed the crowds reached out to pat them on the back, shouting encouragement in their ears. At first I was put off by the mess and the disorderly intrusion these crowds made; hardly anything like the reserved spectators at a golf tournament! Then I thought again.
In a mountainous 23 day bicycle race those cheering, back-slapping crowds may have energized the bodies and spirits of the straining competitors. Judging from the grimaces on their faces they certainly needed all the help they could get.
Believe it or not, the crowds and the bicyclists at the Tour de France reminded me of today’s Hebrew reading – in particular the opening line:
The author of Hebrews is reminding us of the need for faith and discipline in the race we are running. This race is no quick 100 yard-dash to the finish line. Rather, in the metaphor of athletics, we are in a long, cross-country race that involves steep hills and sudden declines. We need assurance and encouragement, we need a "cloud of witnesses" to inspire and cheer us on.
Hebrews has previously given a long list of heroes in faith from the Hebrew Scriptures (Heb 11:5ff), names of Israel’s greatest: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph etc. (It’s a shame the author didn’t include the heroic women who were also great models of faith like: Sarah, "Mother of the Jewish Nation," Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, etc.) These and so many unnamed ones in both Testaments, are "a great cloud of witnesses," for us as we continue to keep "our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith." Maybe it is not too far afield to liken our past and present heroic ones to spectators in our long and taxing athletic event. And not just idle spectators, but they are those who cheer us on, support us in our efforts and inspire us to keep at our, sometimes, difficult task of being Christian witnesses to Jesus Christ.
"Cloud of witnesses" was a phrase taken from ancient Greek Olympic events. The "cloud" was supposed to encourage those undergoing the dangerous and taxing competitions. The athletes were expected to train arduously and put aside all that would distract them from their goal – victory in their competitive event. In the language of ancient athletic training, Hebrews encourages believers to trim down, rid themselves of unnecessary baggage and anything that would slow them down, especially "every burden of sin that clings to us." Being weighed down by the sinful distractions of this world would only divert us and prevent us from achieving our true goal – the joy that Christ has shown awaits us. "For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame…."
As a young priest, struggling with a difficult assignment and its daily trials, I went to speak to a senior priest friend for advice He summed up his counsel to me in one brief sentence, "Jude, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus." I did not know at the time that he was quoting the letter to the Hebrews. Looking back I realize my
friend, Father Louis, was also one of the "cloud of witnesses," who was setting an example, patting me on the back and shouting encouragement in my ear as I strained forward – just like those spectators at the Tour de France!
It isn’t just a matter of keeping our nose to the grind stone, is it? It is not just about our "keeping on, keeping on." And it is not just keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus because he is an inspiration. There are plenty of examples of wise leaders and teachers in the history of the world who also suffered for their beliefs. No, it’s because by Jesus’ fidelity, endurance, and victory, that we, the baptized, have received his life along with his promise of future victory, "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus."
The last verse, "You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood…", while initially true, did shine a light on what the letter’s readers would one day have to endure for their constancy and faith. They did shed their blood for their belief.
Let’s return to the "great cloud of witnesses" that Hebrews says surrounds us. We know the names and the lives of the ones whom the church declares as "saints." Among them we have our favorites, those we turn to for prayerful support and inspiration by their example. But who else is in your "cloud?" – and we are not talking about the internet here! Who are those who support you in dire times? Who gives you courage by the example of their lives? Who keeps you in the Church, despite the failing "witnesses" of the recent scandals? During this Eucharist imagine those good souls standing around you as you pray. Name them and give thanks to God for them. After all, isn’t the Eucharist a prayer of thanksgiving at its heart?
Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: