Sometimes I think that watching the Olympics should count as exercise. After just ten minutes of watching athletes swim, jog, and run, I feel like I’ve had half an hour at the gym and I’m ready to order a good pizza to compensate for all the exertion! Eight years ago a thirteen year old kid from Singapore approached swimming legend Michael Phelps. The kid told Michael that he was his idol. He told Michael that he wanted to be like him when he grew up, and that he would like to beat him one day. Michael encouraged him to keep training and to keep working at his sport. Two days ago Michael Phelps won his only silver medal in these Olympics. He lost to this Singaporean kid that he met and encouraged eight years ago. A wonderful photo captures the moment at the end of the race as they both stare at the scoreboard, both smiling, and both deeply enjoying the moment of finishing the race. But in order to reach this moment that kid had to train over and over again, day in and day out. Michael Phelps was his idol, and his motivation for reaching his goal, despite all the difficulties, and many Olympians have the same qualities of perseverance and determination. Saint Paul is fascinated by races and competitions. In the Second Reading we hear Saint Paul recognize the virtues of fortitude, perseverance, constancy, and determination, and he applies them to following Christ in conscience and living a Christian life with discipline. “Persevere in running the race” (Heb 12:1), he says, “Persevere.”
One of the challenges we have in living our faith in today’s world, is that we want to live a Light Christianity. We want to savor the gold medal without the suffering of waking up at three am every day for training; we want glory without virtue; we want the fullness of the peace of Christ without the discipline of daily prayer and the sacraments. In short, we seek the resurrection without the cross. This is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel when he says “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized” (Lk 12:50). In the gospel of Luke, Jesus had already been baptized, but now he speaks of another one: his second baptism of the cross. He foresees the “training” and perseverance this redemptive mission will require, and he foresees how the saving power of this act of love will trickle down into our lives.
Just like the young swimmer who had his gaze fixed on Michael Phelps, and who held strong to his motivation for training, so we are called to do the same in Christ. I wondered while I was watching the Olympics ‘What are they thinking about? While they’re sprinting, while they’re swimming, what is their preoccupation in that moment?’ I’m pretty sure it’s not “My goodness I hope I win this one. I need to pay the bills.” or “My lord I’m falling behind this guy, gotta catch up.” The athlete’s’ determination and motivation is fixed on one thing alone, winning the prize and achieving the goal. We see this same zeal of fiery determination with Jesus in the Gospel, when he says “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk 12:49). See? It’s that determination, that desire, and that will, that motivates Jesus. This is why Saint Paul invites us to keep our eyes on Christ, for it is his fire that is the source of our determination and motivation.
To resolve oneself to accomplish a goal is perhaps one of the most challenging things an athlete, or any person, can do. It can be extremely difficult to connect with your motive, and to stay motivated, but the stronger your motive is the stronger your endurance and your virtue will be. St Paul challenges us to find our motive and our strength in Christ. May your motivation be Jesus, he says, may your fire and your desire be the Lord himself.
The successful Olympian athletes we watch on television today may have been shunned and challenged in the past, even by those closest to them. “Do you really think you can make swimming your career?” Their families may have said. “How will you make running a career? Is that what you really want to do with your life?” The ambitious goals of these athletes may have been the source of a division even among their families. Likewise, Jesus says to us “I have not come to bring peace. I have come to bring division” (Lk 12:51). For if we really want to have our gaze fixed on Jesus and his Kingdom, and if following Him is the sole purpose of our lives, then yes, we will be a source of division. People might say “Following Jesus in that way, that’s a form of fanaticism.” “Don’t be so radical.” They might tell you. “Don’t take it too seriously.” Even worse, we may tell ourselves these things. “I’ll just go to mass and make my way in the Christian life,” we could think to ourselves, “I’ll just do the minimum amount necessary to get by.”
When Saint Paul is incarcerated and shortly to be sent to death he writes a letter to Timothy. In this moment when he is in chains and doomed to die what does he write? “I fought the good battle,” he says “I finished the race” (2 Tim 4:7). Paul truly had his eyes fixed on Jesus, just like Jeremiah does in the story we heard in the First Reading. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to read the book of Jeremiah, but of all of the prophets Jeremiah must have been the one who suffered the most. Jeremiah was preaching about the destruction of Jerusalem that would occur if the population didn’t convert. When Jeremiah is about to die they pulled him out of the cistern, and Jerusalem soon after was destroyed, just as Jeremiah prophesied. What compels Jeremiah to act as he does, to put his very life at stake? It is the same power and that same fire that compels Jesus and Saint Paul. All of them are willing to risk their lives in order in to live according to the Word of God. Not to the word of the world, or of comfort, or of success, but of God. The Word of God speaks to us, constantly and subtly by many means, especially through our conscience: “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (CCC 1777). It is that sacred place where we are confronted with the Word, and where we must decide what our path will be, what direction we will choose, what we will think, and say, and do; it is the “place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant” (CCC 2563). Our conscience is the place from which we are compelled, where the fire of Christ in his Word speaks to us. So what will we do? Will we follow the Word? Are we willing to follow the Word? And are we willing to create division for the purpose of having our heart fixed on Jesus?
In the end, of course, it must be the work of grace. To fight the good battle, to finish the race is the work of grace, but it works through our will. We must receive that grace and put it into practice, even in the smallest aspects of our life. We must keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, listening to his voice in our conscience, and we must never give up hope. Whenever we feel that things are too hard, that a family problem is taking away our peace, an addiction is taking away our hope, that a problem at work is getting out of control, and that we are getting tired from this exercise in discipline, then we must turn our gaze to Jesus. Jesus is our hope, but he needs us to assimilate and integrate that hope into our lives. We must ask the blessed Virgin Mary to show us how to keep our eyes on Christ, so that we too may fight the good battle and finish the race, and so that with our constancy, fortitude, and discipline we may bring about, with the grace of Christ, the Kingdom of God.
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