The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
2016 – Cycle C
Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
If you have watched any of the Olympic Games in Rio, you have seen before a competition athletes pacing, striking their muscles and jumping up and down to get their bodies warmed, runners stretching their leg muscles and getting in position at the starting blocks and making practice starts. Some sit or walk around with headphones. Each, in their own way, is gathering mental and physical energy for the task of competing that lies ahead of them. And what we see is only the result of hours and years of practice, of trail and failure, of strengthening endurance and pain, of working mind over body. To be an Olympian athlete is to experience the narrow gate. A hundredth of a second; a photo finish, a slight imbalance decides the medals.
Was Jesus knowledgeable about the Olympic Games played not far away in Greece? For it is this athletic image that he draws on when he teaches us to “Strive to enter the through the narrow gate…” Struggle, make the effort, and commit yourselves wholeheartedly. “For many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” As we watch these chiseled and muscular bodies, there is not an athlete we would deem not disciplined yet consider how many of them make the attempt and are not strong enough, not fast enough, not agile enough and go home empty handed?
Luke uses the same word as he describes Jesus while praying in the garden the night he is arrested [See Luke 22:44]. Picture Jesus shadow boxing, jogging in place, warming up his muscles, headphones on listening to his favourite music as he prepares himself to enter the competition with death and hell. The phrase agony in the garden takes on a very different colour, does it not? Regretfully the Greek word “agony” has come to mean in English “suffering” rather than “energizing”.
How do we rate as spiritual athletes in comparison to physical athletes?
Are we Christians as disciplined as the Olympians?
- How disciplined are we in our attitude and in our active participation in regard to personal prayer, the praying of the Eucharist, and the reading and mediation of Scripture and the Psalms?
- Have we experienced becoming stronger through the pain and technique of fasting, the emptiness of hunger filling our spirit, the saying “no” to ourselves for the sake of another person molding us in compassion and mercy? As the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers taught, can we control our stomachs and tongues? Unique muscles to consider compared to the Olympians.
- What is the measure, not of our speed or distance but of our generosity to the less fortunate? …in time, …in volunteering, …in financial donations that support charitable organizations?
I unconsciously find myself returning to the disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving and I expect the degrees of preparedness to these spiritual exercises vary among us.
- What of the discipline of personal physical and mental suffering? The discipline of many spouses and family members so tired from caring for a sick, infirm, mentally ill or dying member and yet continue on and would have it no other way.
- The discipline of the sick and dying themselves to see in their suffering a participation in the suffering of Jesus; the passing of the baton, if you will, as in a relay race where all participants need to be fit.
Today the Rio Olympics will come to an end with a lot of flashy pizzazz. It is good to see the world come together in such a manner but by Wednesday it will all be forgotten in another new cycle. The poor of Rio will continue to be poor. With the sports distraction over, Brazilian, European and American national politics will raise its head again. Nations whose athletes can get along together, honestly compete, embrace, and assist each other will go back to their ancient animosities, histories and prejudices. And the world will be grateful an act of terrorism did take place to mar the event as it did in Munich in the summer of 1972. The Olympians will return home, some having received a piece of precious metal to mark their accomplishments. Not much different than the Olympians of ancient Greece who received a wreath of laurel and fame and glory that would fade and die.
Today can also be a beginning for you and me to reconsider our spiritual athleticism. As the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us, might we begin to be disciplined so as to strengthen our drooping hands to fold in prayer, to open in assistance for another person, to embrace in forgiveness, to build for the future; to strengthen our weak knees to bend them in humility, in adoration, in service to other people; to make straight paths for our feet that nothing may become an obstacle or an excuse to going to prayer, to seeking another person out who is lost, to run toward Jesus.
Unlike the Olympians what will mark our entrance through the narrow gate will not be a prize to hang on the wall, stuff in a drawer or be sold and forgotten; it will not fade and die like laurel or fame. What will mark our spiritual discipline if we will struggle, make the effort, and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to enter the narrow gate will not be touted in the media or even seen or acknowledged by many people. It is a personal decision of commitment.
I’ve been working out at the gym with a trainer three times a week for over four years now. I call it Sweat & Swear. I do a lot of both at the gym because it is mentally challenging, the mind giving in long before the body. It hurts and it never stops hurting and certain muscles can be sore for days after. The payoff? I am healthy and fit. It is a personal decision of commitment. It has become a way of life.
Is our spiritual life one of a casual association with Jesus or a genuine Olympian commitment?