Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the Mass readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 14, 2022)

Media outlets covered the story. The photograph of two women holding hands crossing the finish line of the 2019 Pittsburg Marathon spread quickly through social media. The Daily Mail (UK) titled its article: “Heartwarming moment two strangers hold hands to finish the Pittsburgh Marathon in dead last place.”

The story of these two runners began at mile 14 (of 26.2). Laura was feeling self-conscious realizing she was at the end of the runners. Turning around she saw Jessica running behind her. The two had never met before but decided to “buddy up” and run the rest of the race together. They encouraged each other the remaining 12.2 miles. This was Jessica’s first marathon and she was concerned about being able to cross the finish line. Laura would say to Jessica, “You’re fine! I know you’re ok! You can do this!” Both reported that the cheers and support of the spectators along the way and a large cheering crowd at mile 25 spurred them on toward the finish.

Running a race has often been used as an image for living a good life. St. Paul adapts the image several times for living a Christian life. The image is used in this Sunday’s second reading, a passage from The Letter to the Hebrews. The author encourages us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us” and to “persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”

The passage begins by noting that we who run the race “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” In living the Christian life, we do so with great encouragement from the witness of those who have gone before us. In the first place, we have all the great figures from the Old Testament who, by God’s providential care, prepared for the coming Messiah. The memory of their faithfulness to God and to the covenant spurs us on in the race of life. Following them, we have all the saints who have already run the race to the finish line. The witness of their love of Christ and fidelity to the Gospel likewise lend us encouragement as we journey through life toward its goal.

Jesus, the Christ (or Messiah), who is “the way, the truth and the life,” lies at the heart of this race. Although he has already run the race to victory, he continues to run the race with us. He inspires us and urges us forward on the journey.

The Gospel for today’s liturgy provides a particular aspect of the journey, one in which we might face a struggle. At first reading, it might seem off-putting or even frightening. We certainly perk up when we hear Jesus say: “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

The words seem in sharp contrast to most of Jesus’ other words handed on in the Gospels. He then goes on to speak of divisions that his disciples will have to face in life. Context is important for understanding these words.

Jesus tells us: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” Here he is pointing ahead to his passion, death and resurrection.

What is the fire of which he speaks? Is it like a campfire, or a house fire or the forest fires we see in California or France and Spain?

Perhaps it is a refining fire used to purify metal. This image is used elsewhere in Scripture: “For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in God and he will help you; make your ways straight and hope in him” (Sirach 2: 5-6); “In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for the praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7-8).

Jesus, in pointing to his “baptism,” alludes to the conflict with evil. In one sense, Jesus is the fire. He will battle evil which will culminate in his passion and death. His resurrection will manifest his victory. In Jesus, the victory over sin and death has been won for all humanity. However, the disciples will still have to struggle in life with the forces of sin and evil, no matter how great or small.

Following the Way entails making choices that sometimes, perhaps many times, go against the way of the world. Often when this happens, divisions start to occur.

Sometimes it is clear and obvious – how many stories have been told of a convert to Christianity being rejected by their non-Christian family members. In our context, the more regular division may be someone being avoided because they “won’t join in the crowd” in doing something their faith tells them is wrong. In this context, Jesus’ teaching reminds us that in following him, we join in the battle against evil. He is the refining fire that we invite first into our hearts then into our actions and by them into the world.

We are all running in the race of life. Our finish line is heaven. Life is more like a marathon than a sprint. Like the runners in the story above, we may face challenges and difficulties. We might even be running in the back of the pack.

However, Jesus is our companion on this journey. He has already won the victory for us and opened the doors to eternal life. The faithful who have gone before us — the saints, that “cloud of witnesses” — also remind us that we are not alone on this journey. They inspire us with their example and spur us on until we too cross the finish line and share in the eternal life first promised us in baptism.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.