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Religion column: A cloud of witnesses

By Fr. Jonathan Filkins

Our judicial and legal systems are based upon firm beliefs. Grounded, in these beliefs, is the finding and furnishing of evidence; the physical material and statements which confirm this evidence. The belief is that all persons are innocent, until proven guilty. The collection of footprints, shell casings, DNA, blood, fingerprints and other physical samples often eliminate the innocent and point to those guilty of the offense. However, even the provision of this material may be subject to interpretation.

One of the first questions investigators ask is, “Were there any witnesses?” It is an elemental question in their pursuit of the truth. Any potential witness, even if they were only an incidental observer, may offer a clue to the event. “I only saw a man running East on Main Street, about the time of the hold-up,” conveys the beginnings of the witness’s involvement. Later questions may ascertain the height, build, clothing and direction of the person, now suspect.

If there are other witnesses, further information may be gleaned. Quite naturally, witnesses may prove to be unreliable. It has been frequently shown that witnesses, given the same circumstances, will report information which is entirely in conflict with others. Only when there are concurring reports may the information begin to carry greater weight. As with any experience, we are biased in our views by our life experiences, age and social position.

Some 138 years ago, the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral occurred. There, Wyatt Earp, his two brothers and “Doc” Holiday attempted to disarm the Clanton brothers and fellow desperados. The Earp bunch were entirely within their rights, as sworn peace officers and given the town ordinances of Tombstone, Arizona. Earlier in the day, rumors had swirled around town about the Clanton’s getting revenge for past slights. Rather than have them come to them, the proactive Earp’s met their offenders, attempted to enforce the no-guns ordinance, and a gunfight ensued. Historians have long argued over the facts of the events, as the eyewitnesses gave unreliable statements for what occurred. Yet, the review of all of the evidence shows a clear consensus. Taking the longer view, it was the beginning of the end for the “Wild West.”

Imagine the difficulty in ferreting out the truth from nearly nineteen hundred years earlier. With each passing century, the difficulty becomes greater, the evidence lost. Many of us have been to museums where ancient artifacts are on dusty display. In toto, they cannot convey the truth of what this, or any other great civilization, has truly brought to the fore of humankind.

For us to truly begin our pursuit of the truth, we must rely upon the reports of others, through the written word; most especially those reports of the ancient times. Naturally, we look to the reports of the many, rather than the few.

As Christians, our essential understanding of Jesus Christ, both terrestrial and ethereal, is contained in the Holy Bible. Accepted as Canonical by the early Church, meaning the true account, we are presented with the centuries old telling of his life and times, before, during and after his presence amongst us. As in any report it has an occasional conflict, but the essential truths are beyond serious debate.

One of those who we rely upon is Saint Paul, who wrote to the Jews. In his discourse, he argued, “We are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.” Here Paul is saying there were many who saw, and participated, in the many miracles which Jesus accomplished. It was not the few, it was the very many. We know there were many hundreds, if not thousands, of peoples who physically saw the Resurrected Jesus.  Certainly, here is evidence to convict the truth, as each of us may join the cloud of witnesses made by our own judgements.