In the stream of Christian tradition that has shaped the readings of the Daily Office, today is “All Saints’ Day,” which the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes as a day “to celebrate all the saints, both known and unknown.” For those of us who participate in branches of the Lord’s family that don’t give quite as much attention to such traditions, it might be helpful to know that this is a celebration that’s been going on for some time, with the earliest references to its observance dating back to 373 AD. Not surprisingly, the New Testament lesson for the day is a familiar passage from the Book of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses….” Who are the “witnesses” who mean the most to you as you contemplate the influences and examples that have shaped your faith? And what do these witnesses see, I wonder, as they look upon what we’ve done with the legacy that they bequeathed to us?
In honor of our “saintly witnesses,” today’s reading calls us to two specific actions. First, we are to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Let’s be honest, however; sometimes we don’t really want to throw off the things that hinder and entangle. From our perspective, they’re not hindering us, but comforting us, or protecting us, or distracting us from realities that we’d just as soon ignore. So what do we need to “throw off” today? What are the habits, the fears, the “accoutrements of modern life” that are preventing us from “running with joy” the race that God has put before us?
Second, we are to “run with perseverance.” That can be tough, of course, especially on a day like today when the news is filled with reports of yet another cowardly attack that puts our divisions and our brokenness on display. But as we run, we’re able to “fix our eyes on Jesus,” who already knows how to achieve victory over the worst that the world can throw at us — and who promises to be with us every step of the way.
Interestingly, if you back up just a verse from the passage quoted above, you find that all the saints we honor today — in spite of the holy example provided in their lives and teaching — still haven’t received “full enjoyment” of all God’s promises. Because, the Bible says, “God had planned something better…so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:40) Somehow, this race isn’t over until we all cross the line together.
May we “currently-being-sanctified” saints, therefore, live in such a way as to bring completion to the saints who have gone before us. And may those saints preserve us as we run joyfully after Jesus, who is our Race and our Prize and our Help along the Way.