Reflecting on the Scripture readings for today, February 5th, my mind wandered to the brilliance of the Letter to the Hebrews. We read Chapter 12 verses 18-19, 21-24 with the rich imagery of approaching the “city of the living God” that is the “heavenly Jerusalem” that contains such images as “countless angels in festal gathering” and “the sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel”. These phrases ignite a feeling of grandeur and magnificence! The passage describes an eternal gathering that should not be feared, but embraced.
We have been reading from Hebrews throughout Ordinary Time and will soon begin the Lenten Season. The author of Hebrews, who scholars say was a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian familiar with Platonic philosophy, inspires me. There is much to be said about the background and context of the letter. I would like to reflect on one phrase from Hebrews 12:1-4 that constantly returns to because it is quite an eternal gathering. The words, “so we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” show how to grow in holiness through the example of Christ.
My imagination darts to the scene of all saints gathered together, surrounded in golden light with haloes on their heads. The saints are the witnesses who envelop the throne of God and embrace Jesus’ example of faith. They have run the race of life while keeping their eyes fixed on Christ. The Catechism explains that all the faithful form one body, whose head is Christ. The good of each of the faithful is communicated to the others as a communion of persons (CCC 947). The picture is a reminder of our work together to reach the heavenly Jerusalem and building the Kingdom of God on earth. "Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state - though each in his own way - are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect" (CCC 825, cf. 296). We can join the cloud of witnesses!
The image of the communion of saints reminded me of the book, Cloud of Witnesses, edited by Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday. It is a collection of the stories of modern-day saints and their influence on faith and work for justice. The collection includes Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Oscar Romero. These people are testaments to the faith along with countless others. They characterize the words in Hebrews 12, “For the sake of the joy that lay before him Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” Enduring criticism, injustice, suffering and loss, these witnesses were confident that they would discover the joy of the “city of the living God.” Although we are not celebrating the feast of All Saints’ Day, we can be reminded of the stories of the saints and how they ran the race. Lent is a race in itself to the tomb of Christ, in hope that he will rise and we will be renewed!
Matthew Kelly provides encouraging words for this Lent that will aid in your race as a witness of Christ and “saint-to-be.” He proposes that you have your “Best Lent Ever” with his daily reminders and reflections that go beyond giving up chocolate and sweets. We are a part of that cloud, aiming to become closer to Jesus in our sacrifices during Lent. As we approach Lent, how are we witnesses to what we believe in? How are we witnesses even if our lives don’t reflect the life that we imagine for ourselves? I invite you to check out this plan and see if it is the right fit for your 40 days!
After touching on the description of this beautiful cloud in Hebrews and expanded on later in chapter 12 today, I would like to close with the message of remembering the little things. Remembering to be kind to a stranger or stick around for a conversation instead of heading home, taking a walk for 30 minutes and sitting in silence in a chapel, will help brighten your light like the haloes of the saints. By being intentional with your presence and time you are becoming your best self! We are witnesses of Jesus and his work simply because we embrace him. The little things are what build the grandeur and magnificence of the heavenly Jerusalem. Keep smiling as you run the race!
Sophie Jacobucci is a 2014 graduate of the Echo Program at the University of Notre Dame currently living in Denver, CO.
This past spring, Pope Francis went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the motto, “So that they may be one.” On November 12, we celebrate a saint who lived by this motto, St. Josaphat.
St. Josaphat was an Eastern Rite bishop and model of Christian unity. He was martyred in an effort to bring part of the Orthodox Church into union with Rome. He was born John Kunsevich in 1580 to a Catholic family in what is now modern day Ukraine. Clergy who were seeking and supporting reunion with Rome influenced Kunsevich at a young age. This led him to become a Basilian monk and priest. He lived as a preacher and ascetic.
Josaphat was elected bishop of Vitebsk in 1617 and became archbishop of Polotsk in 1618. Through synods, catechesis, reform of the clergy, and personal example, Josaphat influenced the greater part of the Orthodox in the area of Vitebsk to unity. He remained steadfast in his beliefs by opposing Latins who saw unity only in Latin terms. Likewise he suppressed Byzantine traditions in the name of Catholic unity.
An Orthodox archbishop was appointed in Polotsk and Josaphat was accused of taking office invalidly. Many of the Byzantine Catholics were won over to allegiance to Orthodoxy. The Latin bishops of Poland did not support him. In 1623 Josaphat went to Vitebsk to bring peace and preach to churches to reconcile differences. On November 12, a mob broke into the house where he was staying, shouting hatred and violence. He was struck in the head with an axe blade mounted on a long shaft, and shot. His body was thrown into a river after the upheaval.
An article from EWTN writes, “It is important to say that there was a martyr on the Orthodox side as well, and even good men were uncertain where truth and justice lay. St. Josaphat died working for reconciliation, and peacemakers often find themselves hated by both sides.” Four hundred years later Church leaders are supporting the same cause for unity. St. Josaphat did not have all of the answers, but he did know that following Christ and working toward forgiveness and peace were worth the pain of confronting those who hated him. He was canonized by Rome as the first saint of the Eastern Church.
Pope Francis displayed this sentiment in conversations with the Orthodox Church while visiting the Holy Land a year after he spoke about the treasures of Christians. He noted that “we Christians bring peace and grace as a treasure to be offered to the world, but these gifts can bear fruit only when Christians live and work together in harmony.” He shares the convictions of St. Josaphat and the gifts they bear. It is an important reminder of the responsibility we share to promote unity among all Christians.
Sophie Jacobucci is a recent graduate of the Echo Program at Notre Dame and currently lives in Denver, Colorado.
On Sunday, November 4, I couldn’t help but smile as I opened my hymnal for the opening procession. “Here in this place new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away.” The lyrics came so easily from my heart, words that I had sung as a little girl in the pew and now as a young woman working as a catechist for a parish community. From my first days settling into the rhythm of work in a parish office and transitioning from life as a student, I’ve made some new and unexpected friendships that have reflected this new light.
These unexpected friendships are those of the saints. Peter Kreeft writes, “A saint is a little Christ. Not only do we see Christ through His saints, as we see a light through a stained glass window, but we also understand the saints only through Christ...” At this stage in life, a state of transition, I have yearned for Christ in a new way. How do you become who you are in faith and Christ? That burning question has led me to the lives of extraordinary people who acknowledged their own light and sinfulness and transformed it in the light of Christ. I’ve grown to know Christ better through the face of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Therese of Lisieux, and Bernard of Clairvaux. I see him in Francis of Assisi, Francis de Sales and Elizabeth Ann Seton. These are only a handful of people who reflect what we call a communion of saints.
The Catechism states, “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church” (CCC 962). The saints come together in union as the Body of Christ, each bringing their own sinfulness, challenges, joys and earthly life to the table. How amazing it is to know that there is a whole family in heaven feasting and praying for us on our own journeys! Their personalities and similarities to our own experiences remind us that we too are unique lights, finding our true selves in Christ. “For me to be a saint means to be myself,” writes Thomas Merton. And the message is echoed again in the song, “Gather us in...and we shall arise at the sound of our name.” Communion and sainthood begins with listening to Christ say our name and becoming more who we are meant to be in Him.
Pope Benedict noted in his address on this past All Saints Day, “…being united to Christ in the Church does not negate one’s personality, but opens it, transforms it with the power of love and confers on it, already here on earth, an eternal dimension.” Saints are intimately bound to both heaven and earth, in their love and actions. I had to remember in my own transition how the journey of holiness is one set a part. None of these people were sinless, they struggled just like me, but the way that they rooted themselves in faith made all the difference. They lived a dynamic life, a faithful life with intensity as Pope Benedict remarked. The saints gathered, lived as “little Christs,” and beacons of light, because they knew of their final dwelling place in heaven.
Live in the moment, because life is a constant transition. Trust that God carries you through that moment, and submit to his will in faith. Be fully alive, be fully yourself. We ask God to gather us in communion and holiness with these messages, remembering our friends, the saints.
Sophie Jacobucci serves as an Echo Apprentice in the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire.