Cloud of Witnesses

From Commentary on Hebrews, XII (ca. 1265-1268)

He says: “and therefore, we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head.” As if to say: “thus we have said that the saints, although approved by the testimony of faith, did not obtain the promises; nevertheless, their hope did not fail” …

The saints are called “the witnesses of God” because in word and deed God is glorified by them: “so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16); “you are my witnesses, says the Lord” (Isa. 43:10)…

We have this cloud of witnesses over our head because the lives of the saints impose on us the need of imitating them: “take, my brethren, for an example of suffering evil, of labor and of patience, the prophets” (James 5:10); as the Holy Spirit speaks in the scriptures, so also in the deeds of the saints, which are for us a pattern and precept of life, as Augustine wrote…

This the author calls “a weight and sin which surrounds us.” By a weight can be understood past sin, which is called a weight because it bends the soul down to what is below and inclines it to commit other sins: “as a heavy burden my iniquities are become heavy upon me” (Ps. 38:5); “if a sin is not dissolved by penance, its weight soon leads to another,” as Gregory wrote. By sin which surrounds us can be understood the occasion of sin which is present, i.e., everything that surrounds us, namely, in the world, the flesh, our neighbor, and the devil. Laying aside every weight, i.e., past sin, which is called a weight, and sin which surrounds us, namely, the occasion of sin: “laying away all malice and all guile” (1 Pet. 2:1).

Or by weight can be understood the weariness of tribulation. For thus frequently is tribulation called a burden by the prophets, as the burden of Damascus, that is, tribulation; as if he is saying: let it not be burdensome for you to suffer for Christ. The sin which surrounds is temptation which is sent against us from the surrounding enemy. “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goes about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Hence, he adds the advice, “let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us,” not only what is imposed on us to endure patiently, but we should run willingly: “I have run the way of your commandments” (Ps. 119:32). But this struggle is proposed to us for justice: “even unto death fight for justice” (Ecclus. 4:33) …

For it says in Ephesians: “by grace you are saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). But Christ is “the author of faith.” Therefore, if you wish to be saved you must look to his example. Hence, he says, “looking on Jesus in his sufferings.”

This was signified by the bronze serpent lifted up as a sign, “so that all who looked upon it were cured” (Num 21:8); “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believes in him may not perish; but may have life everlasting” (John 3:14). Therefore, if you wish to be saved, look on the face of your Christ.

For he is the author of faith in two ways: first, by teaching it by word: “he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:2); “the only begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him” (John 1:18); second, by impressing it on the heart: “unto you it is given for Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29).

Likewise, he is “the finisher of faith” in two ways: in one way by confirming it through miracles: “if you do not believe me, believe the works” (John 10:32). Likewise, he is the finisher of faith by rewarding faith. For since faith is imperfect knowledge, its reward consists in perfectly understanding it: “I will love him and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). This was signified by Zechariah where it says: “the hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of his house” (Zech. 4:9), namely, the Church, whose foundation is faith, “and his hands shall finish it.” For the hands of Christ, who descended from Zerubbabel, founded the Church and will finish the faith in glory: “we see now through a glass in a dark manner, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12); “contemplation is the reward of faith, by which reward our hearts are cleansed through faith,” as Augustine wrote (On the Trinity, 10), and as it says in Acts: “purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).

St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) is sometimes described as the greatest thinker of the medieval Church. His various theological treatises, above all his Summa Theologica, seek to reconcile inherited Christian teaching with the newly rediscovered metaphysical writings of Aristotle. His Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews is a text reconstructed from lectures he gave at the University of Paris. His modern feast day is January 28. This text has been slightly adapted for contemporary readers.


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