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 perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. — Hebrews 12:1-2
I have spent a good deal of time on Sunday mornings contemplating the stained glass windows of my parish church. As in many another Catholic church, these windows present a gallery of popular saints. They are a reminder that those who gather to worship God in the name of Jesus are never alone. There is a wider "communion of saints" that unites believers across all boundaries of time and space; even across such a boundary as divides this world from the next.
This communion with those who have "died in the Lord" was a vivid reality to the early Christians. They liked to gather at the graves of the martyrs to remember their heroic witness and to commemorate the anniversaries of their deaths. It was this devotion that gave rise to the cult of the saints.
There was a time when martyrdom was virtually the defining characteristic of sainthood. The men and women who died in the Roman arena had offered a total witness to Christ, not only imitating his death on the cross but proclaiming by this sacrifice their faith in the resurrection. Their blood, as Tertullian said, was the seed of the church.