Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
I am a name-dropper! I like to drop names of great people who have gone before us, but often forgotten in our celebrity driven culture. Today’s “fifteen minutes of fame” means that most well-known people are not really significant, and most significant people are not well-known. Great heroes of the faith seldom make Internet news.
So, I take every opportunity to name-drop the faithful men and women of God. I frequently talk about an Augustine or a Wesley, a Mother Teresa or faithful father, or a third-grade school teacher. I talk of many saints in these last years of COVID who have gone to their reward.
At this very perilous time for our nation and the church, we need people to look up to, and footsteps to follow. These are just the sort of people we honor tonight on Halloween! That’s right, Halloween, “All Hallows’ Eve”, or, the evening before All Saints Day.
All Saints Day (November 1) is an important day on the Christian calendar, going back to the earliest centuries when Christians celebrated the memory of martyrs who died for the faith. Then, over time, as prayer vigils were commonly held on the night before feast days, it was natural that a vigil was held on the eve of All Saints, or, “All Hallows Eve.”
Tonight and tomorrow we remember departed saints, with the New Testament meaning of saints as all Christians (Acts 9:13; 26:10; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 1:2). We honor saints who faithfully followed Jesus, being examples that encourage us as we run the race.
Today’s scripture speaks of the saints gone on to glory as “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Greek: martyres). They are witnesses by witnessing God’s faithfulness and witnessing us as we follow Jesus. New Testament scholar Marvin Vincent explains the meaning of the “so great a cloud of witnesses”:
“The writer’s picture is that of an arena in which the Christians whom he addresses are contending in a race, while the vast host of the heroes of faith who, after having born witness to the truth, have entered into their heavenly rests watches the contest from the encircling tiers of the arena, compassing and overhanging it like a cloud, filled with lively interest and sympathy and lending heavenly aid.” (Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament)
On All Saints Day we celebrate what the ancient Apostles Creed calls “the communion of the saints”; we are part of that mystical oneness of saints in glory and saints on earth. This wondrous “communion of saints” is celebrated in the hymn “For All the Saints”:
“Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are thine.
“Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.” What a wondrous truth! What a contrast to tonight’s traditions coming from the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. The ancient Celts believed that on the night of October 31 the spirits of the dead returned to haunt the living. So, the Celts left gifts of food and various goodies to appease and ward off the haunting spirits. And, if people had to leave their homes on that macabre night, they left wearing masks to fool the haunting spirits.
As Christians we know that we will not be haunted tonight by spirits, but witnessed by saints gone before us. We stand on their shoulders as they encourage us to run the race. They surround us as witnesses to God faithfulness and as witnesses to us as we strive for the victor’s crown. Let’s do some name dropping! Let’s remember them!
Oh, 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.
(Hymn, “For All the Saints”)
A fellow traveler,