Preparing for the Year of Faith: A Great Cloud of Witnesses.

In an article for Faith Today Fr Adrian Graffy examines Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei , which proclaims the Year of Faith to begin in October 2012, and discovers similarities with a fascinating New Testament letter.

Towards the end of his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei (the door of faith), which announces the ‘Year of Faith’ marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pope Benedict writes: ‘One thing that will be of decisive importance in this year is retracing the history of our faith.’

In a series of paragraphs the Holy Father then highlights the witness of faith of individuals from the Blessed Virgin Mary to the apostles and martyrs and to men and women of all ages. These paragraphs recall a more extensive list in the extraordinary New Testament document known as the Letter to the Hebrews. While Pope Benedict’s list of witnesses covers the period of the New Testament and the Church, in Hebrews the list starts at creation and leads up to Jesus Christ, who is described as the one who ‘leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’, or ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (12:2).

Hebrews is not an easy read. It is even unknown to us who the author was. The great thirdcentury father of the Church, Origen of Alexandria, wrote ‘Only God knows who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews.’ The focus of the letter, which in fact does not seem like a letter but more like an extended sermon, is on Christ as priest. Christ is the one priest of the New Testament. He has come from God to share our human condition and is described as a ‘compassionate and trustworthy high priest’ (3:17).

His task as priest is to offer the one perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself offered ‘once and for all’ for our salvation (Hebrews 7:27). In this respect he is not a priest of the line of Aaron, from which all Jewish priests descended, but a connection is made with the mysterious priest of old, Melchizedek, to whom Abraham paid homage and who therefore is understood to possess a priesthood of a superior kind.

Christ offers his life as the one perfect sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice made present on our altars whenever the Eucharist is celebrated (though the writer of Hebrews seems to make no mention of this). Once these momentous statements about Christ have been presented and explained the writer goes on to consider the practical demands of being a Christian. The first of these is faith.

In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews the writer begins with a definition of faith: ‘Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.’ (11:1) A more literal translation would read: ‘Faith is the substance (Greek hupostasis) of things that are hoped for, and the guarantee (Greek elegchos) of matters unseen.’ There follows a series of paragraphs, amounting to forty verses of the letter, in which the heroes of faith are listed. They consider Abel ‘who offered a better sacrifice than Cain’ (11:4), Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, as well as lesser known figures, such as Gideon, Barak and Jephthah.

The final verses may be familiar to us, since they are the chosen reading for the Feast of St John Fisher and St Thomas More. In these verses the martyrdom of believers through the ages is recalled. The writer describes all these people as ‘heroes of faith’ (11:39), and then, at the start of the next chapter, as ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (12:1).

Pope Benedict begins his survey of the heroes of faith by referring to Christ, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 12:2). The Holy Father writes: ‘In him who died and rose again for our salvation, the examples of faith that have marked these two thousand years of our salvation history are brought into the fullness of light.’

It was by faith that Mary accepted the word of the angel and believed it. She continued to trust amid the extraordinary events of the birth of Jesus, his ministry and his journey to Golgotha. ‘By faith, Mary tasted the fruits of Jesus’ resurrection.’ And in faith she accompanied the apostles gathered in the Upper Room to receive the Holy Spirit.

By faith, the apostles followed Jesus, believing his words about the Kingdom of God. By faith, they went out to the whole world to proclaim the gospel. By faith, disciples of Jesus formed the early Christian communities, persevering in fidelity to the teaching of the apostles, to the community, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). By faith, the martyrs gave the ultimate witness of their lives for Christ.

The whole span of the history of the Church is then covered by reference to men and women who consecrated their lives to Christ in the religious life, and the countless Christians who have worked for justice. Pope Benedict continues: ‘By faith, across the centuries, men and women of all ages have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness to the fact that they were Christian: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called.’

The Holy Father concludes: ‘By faith, we too live: by the living recognition of the Lord Jesus, present in our lives and in our history.’ With the challenge of the new evangelisation, when Christians have discovered a new confidence to proclaim and witness to their faith, the Year of Faith offers an extraordinary opportunity to follow the courageous example of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, those in the centuries before the coming of the Lord, whose deeds are recorded in the Old Testament, as well as those who have responded to Christ’s call to discipleship, and who will inspire present and future generations of Christians.

This article was published in Faith Today, May 2012: See the article in its original print format (PDF).

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