When I was a young boy, my head was filled with stories. Whenever I listened to my grandfather Alberto, he would always tell me tales of knights and castles, kings and crusades and all manner of things that a little boy would be thrilled by. Yet, amongst all of the crusaders, the kings and popes and monarchs, he would always tell me the tale of one small band of raiders who then returned home and became Counts and noblemen.
My Nonno (The name I call my Italian grandfather) told me tales of the Avagliano family, and thus told me tales of my past.
Hyperbole probably adequately describes much of what I have been told, but it doesn’t matter; the boy who was enthralled by the noble, glorious past of his ancestors has become a man who desires to be worthy of it. In the end, I know that my ancestors – the former counts of Salerno before the declaration of the Republic of Italy in the 40’s – are not the shining spectres that I was brought up to see them as, but it doesn’t matter; every person who has ever lived bar one has been flawed, falling short of what they could be. Those men and women are my past, and a spur to live as well as I can in the future.
The writers of Hebrews understood this, for he wrote;
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
– Hebrews 12:1-2
When this verse is quoted, it is often – and rightly – associated with the here and now; as Christians, we need the spur of other Christians around us, encouraging us to run this race and keep the faith. But the writer of Hebrews had another, equally true, meaning in mind, which the context makes clear. In the chapter preceding these verses, he speaks of faith and the great heroes of faith that had gone before them; of Abraham and Abel, Moses and Gideon and Samuel and many others.
The men and women of the bible continue to inspire us with their faith today, whenever we read their stories in scripture. But we are incredibly lucky, because we have many more stories now than the writer of Hebrews did; almost two thousand years have passed, and in that time we have collated the thoughts, beliefs, hopes and fears, sufferings, trials and deaths of countless millions of people who held their faith in Christ. We can find them in books, in stories, in their writings, even in liturgies and prayers, traditions and precepts.
I have included tradition and liturgies here intentionally, because these things were birthed from people’s beliefs; what some people deride as “religion” – usually when they talk of “dusty and old” prayers and liturgies and writings we have from the last two thousand years of Christianity – are in fact there to spur us on. But tradition need not be old or dusty; even now, we are making traditions and things our spiritual descendants in the faith will have to hand. Tradition can be lively, can be timely and – ultimately – can inspire.
These men and women who have filled our history books, suffered and died for their faith. Many of them were mocked, many more tortured, many died for Christ. Yet, through all of this, their faith remained intact, even stronger than it was before, even in the face of death. These men and women deserve remembrance; their stories can help us through even the darkest times, because they convey a deep truth; Christ is worth giving up everything for, and He is worth even the harshest of punishments.
Their stories, and all they have left behind, are an inspiration for us as Christians today, to live all the more for Christ.And that is what I feel the writer of Hebrews is getting at; we have a cloud of witnesses, both past and present, there to encourage us, to cheer us on, to show us how they did it, to inspire us to do great things.
I know that these spiritual ancestors of ours are not perfect; no one bar one has ever been so. They will have been flawed, sinful humans, just like the rest of us, but their faith none the less inspires, and their stories none the less enthrals. Knowing of these glorious examples in our past has made me desire and strive to run this race worthily, to keep the faith and live it well. If you have not done so, I commend looking up the stories our faith has to share, the prayers and liturgies that have grown over the years.
Because the men and women who lived through those stories, who breathed those prayers and grew our traditions for us, who suffered and died for what they – and we – hold true…they are our past, where we have come from, as it were. My hope and prayer is that they are also a spur for us to love Christ, run the race and keep the faith in the future.