I recently started working on my family tree through www.ancestry.com at the prodding of a friend, and I have been amazed at the mysteries I have uncovered so far, The most amazing discovery is that it has prompted my father to look for his birth parents after all these years. He has never wanted to know who they are, and they are most likely not on this earth anymore, but the longing to just know is there. The exploration of my family history has made me think deeply about this “cloud of witnesses” that we heard about in our readings this past Sunday.
In the letter to the Hebrews, we read, “Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith (12:1-2).” When I first started plugging names into the family tree, they were names that didn’t mean a lot to me. It’s interesting how you don’t have to go back very far before you don’t really know who your relatives are anymore (How fast will I be forgotten?). But it is the smallest of facts that start to draw you in. For example, my mother’s father, who died before I knew him, has the same birthday as my husband. My father’s mother had a sister that died when she was only 2 years old. I found a picture of my mother’s grandfather that used to hang in my grandmother’s house. I remember it because he was a small boy but wearing a turquoise dress (It would freak me out when I slept there overnight!). I found a boarding pass for a boat trip my father’s parents enjoyed. These relatives of mine aren’t just names on a tree; they were people that had struggles and joys and days filled with so many memorable moments. They are my cloud of witnesses.
Many of the censuses that come up as records of my relatives’ existence are handwritten. An official person would walk door to door, and ask about the status of these people’s lives. There would be checks next to names, updates made if someone died or was born. My father’s grandparents were asked if they owned a radio (They didn’t.). This whole process of family discovery is helping me see that I am only one link in a chain of family. Someday, someone will find a record of me in a census list, and I will be part of the cloud of witnesses too. Each link of the family chain was created because of a choice someone made. Out of a choice of love for another, a marriage blooms, babies are made and the chain continues. This family tree is a witness of the choices people have made out of love and it is a cloud of support and strength to those who were left behind.
It is comforting. As I run the race of this life…as we all do…we have this gift of our faith that tells us our families are still with us. They are here to support us, to tell us they have been there, to be fully present to us despite the physicality. We need them. And eventually, our future great, great-grandchildren/nieces/nephews/etc. will need us too. We all will get to be this cloud of witnesses, with our eyes ever fixed on the creator that makes it all possible. We have a loving God that knows our journeys can sometimes be tough, so God gives us a support team to help us out. It’s good news, and something I’m thankful for today.