A Different Cloud

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also 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… (Hebrews 12:1-2).

People talk a lot about “the cloud” these days. Things get put “on the cloud” and taken off the cloud, and some things just seem to stay there in perpetuity, where people can access them for good or not-so-good purposes. This Information Age image, of course, is a kind of misty metaphor for what is almost the opposite reality—namely, that there are hard drives in very concrete locations that contain all sorts of data, managed by whoever happens to control it.

It turns out that cloud metaphors are an ancient tradition, going back to a time long before computers were invented, when whatever intelligence existed was entirely natural and not at all artificial. One such ancient metaphor comes from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. Having recounted a whole succession of people who lived by faith in even more ancient times, the writer says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” we should go about our own lives as faithfully as we can, knowing that we’re in good company.

All these old biblical heroes had two things in common: first, they tried to live in ways that were faithful to God; and then, they all died. They died, but they did not cease to exist—which may be why the image of their forming a “cloud” of witnesses came to mind. All these faithful people are still out there, still present in the kingdom of God, fellow members of the “communion of saints,” cheering on the rest of us.

In a peculiar way, then, the old image of the cloud anticipates something of the new. We have sources of support, examples we can turn to, resources we can draw upon, to sustain us through the challenges and opportunities of this life.

Ultimately, for us Christians, the entire cloud of witnesses points to Jesus, who is the reason that all those who have gone before us are still with us. As the holiest part of Holy Week begins, Jesus will share one last supper with his closest followers, then go alone to that place where only he can go in order to come back again and show us the way to what lies beyond.

In light of that ancient image, the notion of being “on the cloud” today suggests something infinitely richer and deeper than what we ordinarily mean.

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