“Chariots of Fire” was the 1981 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. The movie tells the true story of two athletes from different backgrounds striving to represent Great Britain and compete in the Paris Olympics of 1924. One of the runners, Eric Liddell, was competing in a qualifying race. The scene is set as the runners line up at the start. They take the starting position. The gun goes off.
They begin to run, and quickly the movie turns to slow motion to capture the fall of Liddell who had tripped. He rolls. He gets up now well behind the field of competition. The movie returns to full speed as he catches up with and overtakes the other runners. After the race concludes, Eric is speaking to a group of reporters and spectators in the pouring rain. He says to them:
“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape — especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, ‘Believe, have faith,’ in the face of life’s realities?
“I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”
St. Paul uses the race image several times in his letters. The race is one of life and for life. He uses this image to encourage us to live a good life in this world so as to be prepared for and enjoy eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Jesus in the Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy similarly encourages us. In the Gospel Jesus urges vigilance in this regard. Being vigilant means being aware. Watching and anticipating that goal, for which we all long, is life eternal.
He begins with a word of encouragement. “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Fear inhibits and distracts. There is no need to fear this world for the Father is greater than this world. With fear comes anxiety and timidity which may lead one away from living the Gospel. Jesus tells us there is no need of fear for we have a loving Father who finds pleasure in caring for us and giving us the kingdom. The antidote for fear is faith. Faith in Jesus. Faith in the Father. Faith in the Spirit.
The first reading which comes from the Book of Wisdom gives us an example of faith which dissipates fear. The author recalls the night of Passover. The Israelites about to be set free from Egypt will have to set out in the wilderness traveling to a land long forgotten. They will have to cross the desert and leave the security of the familiar. Added to this they will have to face the Egyptians. Yet they place their faith in the Lord who will see them through.
The opening of the passage reads: “The night of the Passover was known beforehand to our fathers, that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage.” Faith then supplies courage, and courage robs fear of its power.
The Letter to the Hebrews describes faith this way: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” The author goes on to use Abraham as an example of a person of faith. He leaves his homeland and travels to the unknown territory that is promised him. He takes his family and household and goes at the Lord’s command. Abraham places his faith in the Lord. And the Lord provides for him in abundance for Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God.” One aspect of faith is vigilance.
Keeping vigil entails longing and anticipating the arrival of something or someone of great value. As a consequence one is prepared for the arrival. Hence Jesus tells us: “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.”
In terms of how one keeps vigil, Jesus says to “give alms” and to follow the will of the Father.
Eric Liddel ended up winning a gold medal in the 400 meters at the Paris Games of 1924. His goal, however, was not so much winning the gold as running as to win a greater race, the race for eternal life.
Jesus urges us forward on this race by having faith, living it with courage and keeping it active through vigilance.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.