The Olympic Games provide many stories of courage, determination, hard work and perseverance. Once such story is from the 1992 Barcelona summer games.
The story focuses on Derek Redmond, who was competing for Great Britain and was the favorite to win gold in the 400 meter race. Derek had prepared long and well for the event. Now was the time. The gun went off. The runners moved forward on the track. About halfway through the event, disaster struck as Derek’s hamstring went. He collapsed on the track in pain. Medics and officials all ran over to help Derek.
In the midst of the commotion an older man was watching. He came down from the stands and onto the field running toward Derek. Security personnel and officials tried to stop him but he broke through. The man was Derek’s father.
Arriving at his son, who was now standing, he said: “Son, you don’t have to do this.” “Yes I do,” said Derek. “Then we will finish together,” his father replied. Then father and son completed the lap. As they crossed the finish line the entire stadium leapt to their feet applauding Derek’s determination, courage and perseverance.
Courage, determination, hard work and perseverance are characteristics that should mark the life of the Christian. We are reminded of this as we approach the end of the liturgical year next week with the celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King. The last few weeks these themes have, in one way or another, come to the fore. As we move toward the end of one year and the beginning of another in Advent we are reminded of our “goal” in life, that is, heaven. This is the finish line. Striving to live our lives with this goal in mind helps us to persevere in running the race to its finish.
In the Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy, Jesus uses the image of the “end times” to encourage perseverance. He speaks of the difficulties that his followers will face. Some people will try to lead his followers astray claiming that they are he or teaching falsehoods in his name. Persecutions may come. The faithful may be arrested or tried in a legal court because of their beliefs.
These are the examples Jesus uses. However, we might also think of other sorts of tribulations that might afflict the believer: hunger, thirst, illness, death, sorrow, or despair, to name a few. Regardless of the particular obstacle, these situations can cause distraction, fatigue and discouragement.
Jesus’ response is to persevere. He reminds his disciples, using the legal/trial imagery, that he will be with them throughout. So close, in fact, Jesus even tells them not to worry about what they will say in their defense for he will give them the words: “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”
Jesus stresses faithfulness. He reminds us that, in the end, God triumphs and those who follow will share in his victory so much so that he can say: “You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The first reading, from the Prophet Malachi, echoes this trust and confidence in the Lord’s victory over evil. The passage begins: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble.” His words of encouragement and perseverance follow: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
In other words, stay true to God and his ways. Despite the obstacles and hindrances, the Lord will deliver and will heal all wounds. And so we say in response: “The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.”
Remembering that our goal in life is heaven, we strive to reach that goal through living a faith-filled life loving God and our neighbor. We strive to live, in all aspects of life — from the mundane to the magnificent — according to the Gospel of Christ Jesus.
St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians and us to be diligent in this pursuit. He speaks of people in the community who are more “busy” about other people’s business than striving to live the Gospel. Now St. Paul is probably addressing a situation in the community where some are not doing their fair share of the work, possibly because of laziness or sloth. He calls this a “disordered” way.
In a broader sense, Paul’s example calls us to the “work” of the Gospel, which is continual and comprehensive. In other words: keep busy about the Gospel.
Derek Redmond gave a great witness to determination and perseverance as he finished that remarkable 400 meter sprint in Barcelona. His father showed great love as he rushed the crowds to help his son reach his goal.
As we continue to run our race to heaven we may encounter obstacles, disasters and hindrances of different shapes and sizes. The common factor is that they distract and discourage us from reaching the finish line. In the end these things, no matter how powerful they may seem, will not last.
So Jesus encourages us: “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
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.