It’s one thing to know something in your head. It’s quite another to feel it in your bones.
I had that experience recently in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Dr. Edward Sri, who led our pilgrimage, had told us in advance what to expect: the grand central basilica, built over the graves of early Christians; the long colonnades stretched out like arms to embrace the pilgrims gathered in the Square; and above it all, as though looking down from heaven, a festal gathering of apostles, saints, and martyrs—all the Church represented, all together in one place.
“Nice thought,” I told myself. And then I went there and was enveloped by their presence.
It helped that I had a few hours to take it all in. We were seated front and center before the steps to the basilica, just some of the thousands of people waiting for Pope Francis to arrive and give his Wednesday audience. It was a fresh, bright, joy-filled morning. I was almost directly below the statue of St Peter, who in spite of having his hands full of keys and a scroll, looked down with a smile of kindly welcome.
Saints and martyrs waited with us, singly and grouped in pairs on their high perch. They stood relaxed together, seemingly chatting and observing us below them. Ditto for those who crowned St. Peter’s: Jesus, central with his cross, and the apostles – many of them holding the instruments of their martyrdom. There was a day when I would have thought that gruesome. But seeing them hold such awful things so lightly: it was as if they were saying to us, “Don’t be afraid! Not even torture and death can keep you from this wonderful life Jesus won for us!”
The opening words of Hebrews 12 came to mind:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)
It’s worth spending time with that verse, taking it apart piece by piece and meditating on each phrase. In light of the “cloud of witnesses” I met in St. Peter’s Square, these things stand out:
• The weight that holds us back is not the weight of persecution, or even death. Look at the saints! The crosses, blades and spikes they so lightly bear have proved ineffective. It makes me think: what cross do I bear today? What ridicule or persecution aims to silence me and turn me from the road to heaven? These witnesses are living proof that if we let go of true weights like sin, fasten our eyes on Christ and keep moving ahead, our cross will not be heavy.
• In that last sentence, I did mean to write living proof (without quotes) — not “living” proof. The life of the saints is not metaphorical, even if we can’t see them. The pristine aspect of these figures in St. Peter’s, the peaceful ease and joy with which they seemed to share those hours with us, is as close as art can get to revealing the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Like bystanders at a race, they cheer us on and lend us courage.
• Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” not to condemn us, but to save us. Before he died, he told his disciples that “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to defeat death for himself. He had to go up to heaven, throw open the doors and then call us to be with him there. In the meantime, the eyes of our hearts strain upward (like our eyes did in St. Peter’s Square). As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in The Three-Fold Garland: The World’s Salvation, when our heavenly home is “seen from below, a distance is created which awakens and intensifies our yearning: but this distance is one that is lived in God — spent in believing, hoping, and loving — so that it is an intensification of the divine life in those that remain behind….”
Come, Lord Jesus!
© Sarah Christmyer 2019
Feast of the Ascension
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