“WHAT a cloud of innumerable witnesses surround us! So let us be rid of every encumbrance and especially of sin, to persevere in running the race marked out before us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the founder of our faith and who will bring it to completion. For the sake of the joy reserved for him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and then sat at the right hand of God” [From the Christian Community Bible] (Heb 12:1-2).
The first thing that is rather surprising about the Letter to the Hebrews is that it is not really a letter. Most scholars would say today that it is actually a written and extended homily. Unlike the letters of St. Paul and other NT letters, Hebrews makes no preliminary greeting and no mention of any particular addressee(s), be it specific persons or churches. Besides, it appears that the last part, Heb 13:22-25, was just added by another author to give the document the semblance of a letter. If I were to write my Sunday homily and towards the end added these words: “Before I park my pen, I just would like to extend to Rosita, Jose and all the kids my best regards. God bless you all. Please take good care because I care. Sincerely yours, Fr. Euly”, I would have done something that would not be too unlike the Letter to the Hebrews. Another surprising thing about this document is that, contrary to a long-held belief, it was not written by St. Paul since its style and form are markedly different from his other letters that we are familiar with. The third surprising thing is that its addressees were not necessarily simply the Hebrews but all Christians, especially those on the verge of apostasy, although there is basis to believe that originally it may have had in mind Christians of Jewish ancestry.
What is not surprising about this document is its popularity, especially among Christians who are trying to re-discover, and more deeply, who Jesus Christ is, who they are and what the journey or pilgrimage of faith in life to the heavenly Jerusalem is all about.
Let me reflect on several themes from the text that, to my mind, open to us what Hebrews teaches us on who we are, namely, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
1. “Cloud of Innumerable Witnesses”: Discipleship as a Team Effort
Hebrews speaks of OT heroes of faith in chapter 12. It makes mention of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and many others, presenting them as models of how to believe. Rather than simply focusing on the exemplary character of their lives of faith, it is also clear that this cloud of innumerable witnesses is bonded by faith in the reality we call God’s People and, precisely because of faith, links them with those witnesses of faith who are followers of Jesus Christ. Faith makes a community out of believers. In other words, these witnesses and heroes of faith are, in relation to us, fellow members of the People of God, both in the OT and now the NT. We do not stand on different grounds. We belong to the same family God calls his own. This sense of family and community among believers applies even to the seemingly exclusive unit in the Church called ‘presbyters’. For us priests in the Philippines this is especially made significant by the teaching of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, namely: “The priests of the New Testament are by their vocation to ordination set apart in some way in the midst of the People of God…(PO 3). Priests and their ministry cannot, therefore, be understood apart from this community setting. The ordained priest does not stand outside the Christian community. He remains in the community. He is ordained for the community” (PCP II, 510). Community living is expressed in communal or team ministry. It is not only individuals but also communities or teams that live as Christian disciples serving other Christian disciples, the royal priests, as ministerial priests. Team ministries among priests are not only ideal; they are an expression of discipleship.
2. “Ridding Ourselves of Every Encumbrance and Sin”: Discipleship as Continuing Conversion.
The first thing that Jesus does in his public ministry is to proclaim: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News” (Mk 1:15). Metanoia, the Greek for repentance, is a military word that means a one-hundred eighty degrees about-face from a life of rebellion to a life of obedience towards God. As an ROTC cadet I remember marching ahead of my battalion during a routine drill. We were on a grassy field and were not alone. Carabaos were all over the place, some wallowing in quagmire. We were marching directly into one, my eyes and emotions wide open with fearful anticipation. As I was about to put one step onto a mud hole, our commanding officer barked a command: “Ready, halt. One. Two. About face!” Sin is like a mud hole into which we make wrong decisions to step and then regret later what we did. That opens us to conversion. Hebrews, I think, sounds a similar reminder when it urges us disciples to rid ourselves of “every encumbrance” that is what sin is essentially, for sin hinders us, in the language of Hebrews, from “moving forward to our heavenly goal”.
In a word, we are to make an about face constantly from our wounded nature’s inclination towards rebellion and sin. Unless we make an about-face from sin discipleship would be a continuing non-reality, a sham. There are two movements in conversion: first, the U-TURN from sin; and the second, facing up to Jesus the Master. PCP II teaches us: “The spiritual life of the priest, like that of all Christians, begins with an encounter with Christ, with faith and conversion. This is the beginning of all spirituality and leads to union with God in grace, a state of being in love with God” (PCP II, 533). Continuing conversion is a continuing challenge to us priests because we are its mouthpiece. But as far as conversion is concerned, I’m reminded of the late President Ronald Reagan who said to the USSR when it claimed it was for disarmament: “We want deeds, not words.”
3. “Persevering in the Race”: Discipleship as Commitment
A friend told me of their former parish priest who must have been a hundred years old. He was celebrating his seventy-fifth ordination anniversary. As he thanked God and all the people who had helped him in one way or another, he also made a heartfelt appeal. “Please,” he said, “pray for my perseverance!” My friend and the listeners were smiling and he told me he mused, “You’re seventy-five years a priest and you’re asking us to pray for your perseverance? At one hundred years of age, what do you need perseverance for?” The truth is we need the grace of perseverance till the day we die. Or the old priest could be compared to the swimmer who crossed the body of water between Tacloban City and Basey, Samar. He was about five meters to the Basey shore when he felt the undercurrents getting stronger. So he did what he thought was right. He swam right back to Tacloban. The point is, he was almost at his goal. But he didn’t persevere. He lost the grace of commitment. That would be a tragic thing to say of any Christian disciple whoever he/she is.
There are two important moments of commitment for a Christian disciple: one, an unswerving loyalty to Jesus Christ as the Supreme Value and Treasure of life itself; and, two, a decision to bring to the future our choice for Jesus Christ and the values of the kingdom. One of my professors in College English literature was named “Ivy”. She had a suitor who sent her a card which I happened to read when it fell from her table. The card spelled her name: “I-V(alue)-Y(ou)”. I think I learned from him one aspect of discipleship which is also true to loving. It is to hold Jesus the Master as our foremost treasure and value above all others. If I truly see Jesus Christ this way in my life as a Christian and as a priest, commitment would be my natural response. Secondly, commitment reminds me of a permanent deacon I’ve met years ago, who married to someone who contracted cancer. When she was extremely ill, it was he who would bathe her, carrying her in his arms almost daily and caring for her. When friends asked him how he got the strength to do what he was doing, he said: “Well, I’m only being true to my word when I married her!” That deacon taught me how commitment made bringing the choices or decisions I made in the past (Baptismal, ordination, marriage vows, for instance) into both my present and future circumstances as well.
4. “Fixing our Eyes on Jesus”: Discipleship as Christ-Centered Living
I once had a conversation with a mother. Our topic was the hard times that we call ‘global economic crisis’. I asked her how she and her family were coping. She mentioned her fears that her husband may lose his job and her children may stop going to school. She has two children in college and that made her extremely worried about their future. We had other topics but I noticed that whatever things we talked about, she would always relate them to her husband and her children. Then it hit me. Her family is her center. When we speak of ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus’ and on Christ-centered living, I propose that we learn from her by bringing all the concerns, issues, nooks and crannies of our life, personal, social, political etc. into the same pattern: considering them always in terms of our relationship with Jesus Christ our Master and our discipleship. The document of the Hebrews unfolds to us three precious reasons why our life must be centered on Jesus Christ. One, Jesus Christ is the Word of God who reveals most perfectly the innermost being of God himself, deserving better attention than the Word of God as spoken through angels, Moses or the prophets (Heb 1:1-4:13). Two, Jesus Christ is the eternal High Priest whose one sacrifice has done away with sin once and for all, bringing about a new covenant between God and humanity (Heb 4:14-10:31). Three, Jesus Christ is our perfect model of faith because he gives us insight into the heavenly world of reality, the object of our pilgrimage of faith on earth (Heb 10:32-12:29). In Jesus Christ we see the fulfillment of the Hebrews’ own definition of faith: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and being certain of what we cannot see” (Heb 11:1).
5. “Enduring the Cross for the Joy Reserved for Christ”: Discipleship as Sharing in the Paschal Mystery
We are taught and are always endlessly reminded in the liturgy that it is by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that you and I are saved. If Jesus didn’t suffer and die, there wouldn’t have been any resurrection; and without the resurrection, there wouldn’t have been any salvation for you and me. Salvation is crossing from the darkness and terror of sin and death to the bright light of grace and life. When Jews ‘commemorate’ their passage from their slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land through the crossing of the Red Sea, it is remarkable how they understand and use the term ‘memorial’. For them the Passover isn’t simply mentally recalling but actually being with their ancestors as they experience God’s liberating action leading them out of Egypt’s clutches. This sense is what we Christians also embrace when we celebrate the liturgy “in memory” of the Paschal Mystery of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The past is being made present and we are with Jesus in his suffering, in his dying and in his rising. Why? Because though our Baptism we actually share in the Paschal Mystery which is our real ‘Passover’ from darkness and death to light and life. How? By the power and action of the Holy Spirit who brings to us in this place and in this time the very events of our salvation. But it is the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ that constitute the bridge that has enabled you and me to make that crossing.
Paschal is a word that comes from ‘Pesach’ which means to cross or pass over. The ‘Pesach’ experience of the Jews is made perfect in the ‘Pesach’ experience of Jesus. On the other hand, this ‘Pesach’ experience is not a dead thing of the past; it is very much living and it is a reality in which Jesus the Master wants us to share. St. Paul reminds us of this: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Paul only re-echoes what the Master himself says in the gospel: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself” (Lk 9:23-25).
Self-denial, our old, almost endearing ‘short-cut’ term for this gospel injunction includes making concrete the taking up of the cross in our own everyday lives: a priest saying ‘yes’ to a difficult assignment or transfer from a well-loved place or community or person(s); a husband saying ‘no’ to an ego-boosting relationship with an attractive woman in order to be true to his wife and keep his family intact; a wife setting aside personal conveniences to respond to her family’s needs or to spend more time with her husband and children; a politician saying ‘no’ to personally beneficial ‘power extension’ political efforts to say ‘yes’ to the people’s true needs, and so on. The point is, there are simply an unlimited number of ways to bring the Paschal Mystery into our personal and social realities.
The sharing in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ is not because we love suffering and pain for their own sake, the document to the Hebrews reminds us. It is for the sake of the “joy reserved for Jesus Christ”. You and I know too well how easily we can miss this one. And how easily for us to even think it a bit naïve. But the reality of the Paschal Mystery is not complete without a sense of joy even in the middle of suffering, pain and crisis. Joy isn’t being immune to sadness or suffering, as Pope Paul VI used to remind us Christians of today. It’s not having a smiling face even when things are serious. It’s having a sense of the presence of God, a sense of his victory over evil, over darkness, over death from sin. Isn’t it tragic when we lose a sense of the ‘eschaton’, of what the document to the Hebrews consider the end-goal of faith: “certainty in the things we cannot see” (Heb 11:1)?
Rene Voillaume has this to say to us: “By believing in Christ we are believing in joy, by embracing the crucified Christ, we are embracing joy without knowing it, and the Cross expands within us our capacity for the happiness to come.”
St. Teresa of Calcutta has something more practical: “One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”