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Like a lot of people I stayed up far too late Friday night, watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Rio.
It was spectacular, as all these things usually are—rich with pageantry and music and ceremony. There’s something thrilling in seeing thousands of athletes parade into a vast arena—and it gained an added emotional punch this year, when for the first time, a special team made up of refugees marched in under the Olympic flag.
Over the next two weeks, the sportscasters will be sharing dozens of stories about these athletes, and highlighting “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” But it’s worth noting, I think, that many of these talented men and women embody a theme we hear this morning:
You don’t become a world-class champion athlete without preparation.
You don’t become a world-class follower of Jesus Christ without it, either.
Discipleship—like athletics—makes demands.
It demands preparation—sacrifice, commitment, prayer, fidelity.
It calls us to love more deeply, give more generously.
It calls us to a kind of martyrdom, a dying of self. And it demands practice.
The singer Harry Connick, Jr. likes to say, “I’m a practicing Catholic. I’ll keep practicing until I get it right.” That could apply to any of us, couldn’t it? We are all works in progress—and sometimes the progress is slow. We need practice.
But discipleship also demands, first and foremost, something else—something we hear mentioned prominently today, in the Letter to the Hebrews.
It demands faith.
Elusive, wondrous, empowering, trusting faith.
I was moved and inspired recently to read about the faith in some of the athletes down in Rio.
There’s Simone Biles—a 19-year-old daughter of a recovering drug addict, Simone is being hailed one of the greatest gymnasts on earth. Mary Lou Retton has called her “the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life.” Someone else has described the 4 foot 8 inch athlete as a “hummingbird with muscles.”
She’s also a devoted Catholic, who never misses an opportunity to visit a church and pray to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.
And then there’s Katie Ledecky—the 19-year-old swimmer who attended Catholic schools in Maryland and four years ago won a gold medal in London. She credits her Catholic faith for keeping her grounded. “I say a prayer or two before every race,” she said recently. “The Hail Mary is a beautiful prayer and I find that it calms me.”
Again and again, you read about these incredibly gifted young people who proclaim, proudly, that it’s not about them. It’s about giving glory to God. They are rooted in their faith.
They are prepared. Physically. And spiritually.
In fact, here’s something you don’t see mentioned in much of the Olympic coverage: faith is so important to many of the Olympic athletes, that Rio has built a special “interfaith center” in the Olympic village, where daily prayer services are being held for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. There are eight Christian chaplains serving the center—four Catholic and four Protestant, along with chaplains from other faith traditions, as well.
It reminds us that if you’re “going for the gold,” it helps to go with God.
And it challenges us to ask ourselves: if athletes down in Rio can do that…shouldn’t we?
What are we doing to build up our souls?
What are we doing to prepare ourselves to meet Christ?
A lot of us work hard on the routine details of daily life—paying the bills, meeting deadlines, or finishing assignments. Maybe we also work hard at sports or hobbies or hitting the gym a couple times a week.
Maybe during the summer months, we work hard at not working hard.
But how hard do we work on our salvation?
I mentioned this last week, when I preached on the tragic martyrdom of Father Jacques, and this theme pops up in the Gospel again today: we cannot know how much time we have, or when our time on this earth will come to an end.
Christ’s words to his apostles 2,000 years ago are his words to us here and now: be prepared.
We cannot know when, or how, we will reach the end of this journey.
St. Paul has described his own faith journey as “running the race.” Well, we are all athletes, training for the ultimate Olympics, the ultimate finish line.
We need to be prepared.
We need to build up our resistance to sin. Strengthen the soul. Give our knees a good workout by putting them to use in prayer.
And: we all need to exercise more.
We need to exercise humility…mercy…compassion…and love.
We need to be “practicing Catholics,” practicing what we believe every hour of every day. It can’t hurt to go to confession. At the right moment, at the right time, it could make a difference you could never imagine.
This morning, let us make this our goal: to be prepared. And to prepare ourselves as people of faith—trusting in God’s generosity and mercy to make us stronger and holier, more trusting and more faithful.
Let us ask him to make us ready to receive him in the Eucharist—and to be ready to meet him in that moment we cannot predict, that moment we may never anticipate, that flickering instant when we will be called to give an accounting of our lives.
We cannot know the day or the hour.
So, let us be prepared—and let us do it as people of faith.
Because in the Olympics of life, this is how we Catholic Christians “go for the gold.”