A Cloud of Witnesses

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By Leonard J. Vander Zee Issue #88 of Reformed Worship. This article written by Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, first appeared in Reformed Worship #88 (June 2008). While we wonder about the place of Reformation Day celebrated on October 31 (see blog post) we might also want to consider the place of All Saints Day which is celebrated in many denominations on November 1. Can a fuller understanding of the heroes of the faith and the great cloud of witnesses help us rediscover the purpose and focus of Reformation Day?  -JB

An acquaintance who has two sons in the Marines marveled at their loyalty and commitment to the unit and the Corps. One of his boys recalls the whole barrack yelling in one voice at bedtime, “I want to be a Marine like Chesty Puller.” General Puller, a veteran of WW II and Korea, is one of the Marines’ greatest heroes.

People need heroes. We need them as examples of the kind of life to strive for, as common ideals around which the community coheres. A few weeks ago, I heard Trygve Johnson, Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan (see p. 16), preach on the “heroes of faith” passage in Hebrews. That passage ends with the stirring call, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders . . . and run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).

Johnson recalled a troubled time during which he often sat in the college chapel early in the morning, struggling to pray. As the dawn broke, a panorama of stained glass images began to glow—heroes of faith from Elijah to Mary, Augustine to John Wesley. This literally glowing cloud of witnesses buoyed Johnson’s faith and spurred him on to take the next slogging steps in his own journey.

Chesty Puller and the virgin Mary—heroes of a different sort, but heroes nonetheless. Each uniting a community, calling it to “strengthen the feeble arms and weak knees” (12:12).

In the Roman Catholic tradition, November 1 is All Saints Day, the commemoration of the “official” saints, apostles, and martyrs. This is followed on November 2 by All Souls, the commemoration of all the faithful departed.

Protestants don’t like to separate the big-name “official” saints from the ordinary, garden-variety ones. We have our own hymn for the day, and it’s “For All the Saints.” After all, Paul addressed his letter to the Corinthians to the “saints” in Corinth, and then went on to castigate them for their heretical views and divisive behavior. We are all saints because we have been made holy in Christ, not because we have distinguished ourselves with holiness.

But even more problematic is the Protestant suspicion that recognizing the saints is a spiritually dangerous form of hero worship. The sculpted saints that filled many medieval churches (some of which were smashed in a frenzy of iconoclasm in the early days of the Reformation), seemed like objects of worship. People would pray to them and light candles before the statues. This veneration clearly raised deep suspicions for the Reformers and for their successors.

Still, there’s an inherent need to unite around “heroes of faith” whose lives we strive to emulate. Growing up Christian Reformed, Reformation Day was a big deal, falling on October 31, just before All Saints. At church there would be special sermons and guest speakers. And I must have seen the classic black and white film Here I Stand a dozen times: earnest Luther nailing the 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, courageous Luther bravely defending himself at his “trial” at the Diet of Worms.

As far as I know, no one has made a movie of our reformation hero, John Calvin. He evidently wasn’t nearly as dashing as Luther, and besides, back then we didn’t even watch movies, much less make them.

Interestingly, there’s a spreading movement among Protestants to rediscover All Saints Day. It’s been celebrated in the Anglican tradition right along, but now it’s officially recognized on the first Sunday of November in the Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran churches as well. I’ve noticed that it’s slowly and tentatively coming into practice in Reformed and Presbyterian churches as well. (One of my strangest discoveries is the growing trend among very conservative Reformed Churches such as the United Reformed to name their congregations “All Saints,” as in All Saints Reformed Church.)

Frederick Buechner once wrote, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” Whether it’s with a worship service around All Saints as part of the liturgical year, or just a mention of the various heroes from the recent past or long ago in a sermon or prayer, a little reflection on Hebrews 12 shows a strong biblical foundation for looking back at our “heroes” for inspiration in the battle of faith.

The Communion of the Saints

We say in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the “communion of the saints.” Historically, that statement meant the unity of the living and the dead in one community of faith in Christ. In terms that seem perhaps too military to us, the one church used to be described as the church militant, the living, still deeply engaged in the great cosmic spiritual battle. Those who are dead in Christ were the church triumphant, now reigning with Christ. This great “cloud of witnesses” surrounds us and cheers us on all through our lives but especially in our worship.

If we’ve lost that older meaning of “communion of the saints,” the Heidelberg Catechism, which has an honored place among Reformed churches, may be partly responsible.

It teaches that this creedal statement means that we are all members of Christ and share his gifts with each other. I suspect that this answer reflects the desire to maintain a few degrees of separation from medieval Roman Catholic practice. So the catechism chose not to speak of the dead but to concentrate on the living.

Something terribly important gets lost in the process. First, it’s important that the dead are not forgotten. We stand on the shoulders of men and woman—distinguished and ordinary, recently deceased and long dead—who fought the battle and kept the faith. God used their life and faith to give birth to ours.

William How’s Anglican hymn “For All the Saints” (1864) is now found in many Reformed hymnals, though in some cases stanzas celebrating the apostles and martyrs have been excised:

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, alleluia!

As the hymn shows, the celebration of all the saints is not hero worship, it is the worship of the Lord in whom we are one in faith by grace: “Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.”

Like most great hymns, “For All the Saints” teaches while it offers worship and praise. Why do we remember those who are dead as still among us in the communion of the saints? Because they are the cloud of witnesses:

O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, alleluia!

William How hints at another reason for remembering all the saints:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, alleluia!

When we remember the dead, now with the Lord, we receive new strength for the battles we face every day. We realize again that we do not exist for this life only. We remind ourselves that the daily grind, the regular struggles with temptation, the tough decisions we have to make, are part of a battle in which we will finally triumph. Remembering the dead, the door of heaven opens, and we hear the song of victory once more. We remember our ultimate destiny in God’s kingdom. The cloud of witnesses stands and cheers, urging us on.

Remembering those who have gone before us is also an important part of grieving. An All Saints celebration isn’t just about the heroes of the past, the Chesty Pullers of the church. It’s also about those much closer saints—parents, grandparents, spiritual mentors, uncles and aunts—who have strengthened our faith by their words and examples. Remembering them, we continue to give significance to their lives and offer thanks for the way the Holy Spirit works to strengthen faith from generation to generation. While remembering doesn’t erase the pain of loss, it helps heal the wound. What begins at Christian funerals can continue as, year after year, we recall with thanksgiving the lives of those who have gone before us.

This happened quite naturally in the days when churches were surrounded by graveyards, reminding worshipers every Sunday of those on whose shoulders they stood. In our culture, which does its best to hide death from view, it may be even more important to recall the dead. Congregations that celebrate All Saints Day often provide an opportunity to especially remember those who died during the past year and to make a place for worshipers to thankfully remember all those, now with the Lord, who have been significant in their life of faith.

The Orthodox tradition has a practice called the “Panikhida” (other names are used depending on the particular tradition)—a prayer service remembering the departed. It’s held at various times, but especially on the sixth-month anniversary of death and one-year anniversary of death. Many Orthodox Christians offer this prayer service every year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, celebrating in a certain sense their “birthday” into life eternal. I appreciate the deeply countercultural and faith-affirming quality of that practice.

Whether or not All Saints is celebrated on the first Sunday in November, remembering the dead in Christ is an important aspect of Christian worship. I’m aware of one congregation that has a kind of “All Saints” service at the end of each year, remembering those who died in the last year. Also, in many of the Reformed liturgies for the Lord’s Supper you will find a remembrance of the one church on earth and in heaven. The conclusion of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in the liturgy of the Reformed Church in America affirms, “With your whole church on earth and with all the company of heaven we worship and adore your glorious name.”

Making worship inclusive of the whole community of saints—the living and the dead, however and whenever it’s done—broadens our understanding of the church, reminds us of those who went before us on the journey of faith, and reinvigorates our trust in Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death. It’s right there in one of the best-loved and most frequently sung of Christian hymns:

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
who wert and art, and evermore shalt be.

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One key ingregient with all Saints was humility to the point they lost  themselves and became vessels for truth and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. The weren't perfect by any since of the word. They most likely would be the first say they don't deserve it. Glory be to God