The marathon is always the last event at the summer Olympic Games. The event was only run by men until the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It was here that the first women’s marathon was run. Joan Benoit won the race yet the most memorable run was by Gaby Andersen-Schiess. At some point into the run, Gaby’s body started to react to the excessive heat.
When she entered the stadium for the final leg of the 26.2 mile run, the crowd grasped. She was staggering, her body was twisted, her left side limp. When medics started to approach her she waved them off realizing that their assistance would disqualify her from the race she was so near to completion. She waned across the track but kept going forward.
Staggering along the way it took her five minutes 44 seconds to complete the last 400 meters of the race. As soon as she crossed the finish line she collapsed.
Many times athletic competition and training give us stories of great courage and perseverance in “running the race to the finish line.” Gaby’s story is one of those. There are many others that are not as famous, some in our own families and from among our own friends.
In the New Testament, St. Paul uses athletic images several times. He speaks of running so as to win (1 Cor 9:24). He speaks of the prizes of victory (1 Cor 9:26; 2 Tim 4:7-8; Phil 2:16). He speaks of focused training (1 Cor 9:26-28).
In today’s liturgy, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews urges us to “persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Heb 12:1).
The “race” of which Hebrews speaks is not an athletic competition but an allegory for our lives of faith. We are encouraged to live the faith as though we were running in a race. Perhaps the race we should think of is the marathon. Shorter distances might not suffice for the lives we live today.
The marathon requires stamina, persistence, dedication, focus and endurance. Obstacles such as fatigue, frustration, injury and discouragement have to be faced and overcome. Training has to be consistent. The race of faith is similar in these regards.
Hebrews reminds us that in running the race of life the focus of our attention is Jesus. The author says: keep “your eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2).
Our minds and hearts have to be focused on Jesus because he is the goal, the example and the “way” or “road” on which we run this race. The victory we seek in life is union with our heavenly Father through Christ; and with each other in the Spirit.
Jesus is thus the goal of our lives. He is the finish line. At the same time, he is with us on the journey because he is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). He runs with us. He supports us. He strengthens us. He encourages us. He fills us with joy and desire. Jesus is also the example because he has already run the race and won the prize. He has been faithful to His Father. He has done His will. He has emptied himself in love and has been filled with life.
The first reading and Gospel for today’s liturgy help us to identify some of the struggles in running the race and the way to endure. The prophet Jeremiah faced many obstacles as he sought to proclaim the word of God. He was met with rejection, ridicule and frustration almost to the point of despair. Yet he persevered.
In today’s account from the Book of Jeremiah we learn that the leaders in Judah are seeking to have him silenced and put to death. The king gives him “into their power” (Jer 38:5). They seize him, throwing him into a well. Surely things look bad for Jeremiah. His own experience of the many torments he faced would lead him to consider giving up or “throwing in the towel.” Yet he does not give up and was delivered from the well. He was persistent even despite the obstacles.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of His own struggles as in His race to the cross: “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). His persistence despite the great pain he is facing gives us courage to face the obstacles we face in running this race.
The second part of this passage speaks to one of the obstacles we, as His disciples, may face in our race. The obstacle is rejection by family and friends. Living a life based on Christ and His teaching is not always in concert within the societies and cultures where we live. Christian values and teachings sometimes conflict with and challenge popular or widely accepted beliefs.
In this context it is easy to see where rejection would be present, even among families. Numerous examples of this type of rejection are available within the history of the Church. We should not be naïve to think that the possibility is unreal. It is very much a part of the Christian experience. Jesus encourages us to meet the rejection with perseverance, just as He did. He is the coach who shows us the way.
We might also consider two other aspects of the athletic image that can help us in “running the race.” Preparation is important. Different from an athletic contest, we prepare for the race as we are running it. The continual state of preparation requires us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us” (Heb 12:1).
As we go through life, we recognize and identify things about ourselves that hinder us from love and life whether they are actions, attitudes, dispositions or omissions. We have to address and correct these situations to be in the best condition for running the race. Proper training is essential in any sport; so too in the race of life. Prayer and the sacraments are our training program.
Similar to an athletic event full of spectators who cheer the athletes to the finish line, we “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) in the communion of saints who spur us on to victory. We do not run the race alone, rather we run it with each other. Our brothers and sisters who are in the communion of saints have already run the race to the finish line. They share the victory that is Christ’s. Yet they are not separated from us. They are here with us. They “line the streets” cheering us on to the end. We also run it with our living brothers and sisters. Following the athletic image we are all “on the same team.” As St. Paul says, “if one suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26).
In the 1984 Olympics the crowds cheered as Gaby crossed the finish line. They were inspired by her perseverance. After she completed the race, she collapsed in exhaustion. The medics rushed to her aid and within two hours she was rehydrated and fine. She may not have won a medal but she surely was a champion.
As we run the all-important race of life may we too persevere in “running the race to the finish line.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.