Between August 5 to August 21, billions of people from every part of the world watched the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. 11,000 athletes from 205 different nations, including 89 athletes from Kenya, competed in 306 different events.
We have every reason to congratulate these athletes who, after months and even years of training, have pushed themselves to win gold, silver and bronze medals. Nations should be proud of their athletes, as Kenya is proud of Jemima Jelagat Sumgong, who won gold medal for the women’s marathon, and David Rudisha who won the gold medal for the 800m.
Comparing our Christian life to athletic events is helpful because, similar to athletic events, it is not enough for a Christian to be a passive spectator; we have to actively live the Christian life.
Today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12:1-4) relates our Christian life with running a race. Just as the Olympic athletes focused all their attention on winning their events, we Christians need to focus our energies on our life in Christ.
In the past, those who stepped on the podium to receive their medals were given a bouquet of flowers. At this Olympics, the flowers were not presented because they were considered wasteful and not sustainable. Sustainability was a major theme of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Olympics are to be congratulated for reminding the world of the importance of sustainability, care for the world’s resources.
St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that, as important as winning athletic events may be, living out our life in Christ is the surest sustainablity:
"Do you know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things, they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one" (1 Cor 9:24-25).
The Letter to the Hebrews says, “We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). Witness here is not so much someone watching us as much as someone who offers an example. The saints and martyrs are witnesses to Christ. The word “martyr” is based on the Greek word for “witness.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, says that the witnesses are the saints because “in word and in deed God is glorified by them.” They inspire us. Jesus’ words apply to them: “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).
Hebrews speaks of a “cloud.” of witnesses. Thomas reflects that the saints are like a “cloud” because of their lives and their teachings refresh us, similar to the way that a cloud gives us shade, “on account of the usefulness of spiritual consolation, for as clouds bring refreshment, so also the example of the saints…”
Thomas explains, “The lives of the saints impose on us the need of imitating them.” Thomas recalls St. Augustine’s words, “As the Holy Spirit speaks in the Scriptures, so also the deeds of the saints are a pattern and precept of life.” The saints show us that it is possible to really live the life in Christ.
Every athletic event has its challenges or difficulties. There is no Olympic event where people casually walk down a street. Thomas calls these challenges of difficulties “tribulations.” The Christian life entails challenges.
The Second Letter of Timothy describes Paul’s attitude toward the end of his life: “I have fought a good fight: I have finished my course” (2 Tim 4:7). What has he fought against except the difficulties and challenges that come in living the Christian life? Thomas admits that some get worn down by “weariness of the tribulations.” Thomas urges us: “Let it not be burdensome to suffer for Christ.”
We would be surprised if a runner sprinted while wearing a heavy overcoat or while carrying a backpack. Athletes do not wear or carry anything unnecessary. The lighter a person is the faster he or she can go. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “let us lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us” (Heb 12:1).
The struggle becomes more difficult when we carry the burden of sin. Thomas considers sin to be “the most formidable obstacle” in managing the tribulations that arise in our life in Christ.
Thomas comments: “As in a race and a fight, everything weighing one down must be set aside, so too in the challenge of tribulation… Everyone who desires to run to God successfully in spite of tribulations must put aside all obstacles.”
Thomas explains: “Past sin… is called a weight because it bends the soul down to what is below and inclines it to commit other sins.” Psalm 38:5 affirms: “My sins weigh on me as an unbearable weight.”
We are freed of the past sins when we bring our sins to God. Thomas remembers St. Gregory’s words, “If a sin is not dissolved by penance, its weight soon leads to another.”
According to Thomas, the sin which “clings to us” can be understood as “the occasion of sin, which is present, everything that surrounds us, namely in the world, the flesh, our neighbor and the devil.” This sin that clings can be our “carnal affection, which is caused by the flesh surrounding us.”
Thomas affirms, “Put aside your love of temporal and carnal things, if you want to run freely.”
Hebrews asserts: “Let us… persevere in running the race which lies ahead” (Heb 12:1). Thomas comments, that we should accept “not only what is imposed on us to endure patiently but we should run willingly.”
Hebrews urges us: “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who inspires and perfects our faith” (Heb 12:2). Thomas reflects that Christ is the author of faith… If you wish to be saved you must look to His example… looking on Jesus in His sufferings.”
Thomas recalls the account in the Book of Numbers when some of the people with Moses in the desert were bitten by serpents and were cured by looking at the bronze serpent (Num 21:8). John’s Gospel compares this incident with the effect of turning towards Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believes in Him may not perish; but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3:14). Thomas concludes: “If you wish to be saved, look on the face of your Christ.”
Hebrews speaks of Christ as the one who “inspires and perfects our faith” (Heb 12:2). Christ inspires our faith by His teachings. Hebrews states: “God had spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 1:2). The Gospel of John announces: “No one had ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known” (Jn 1:18).
Jesus completes our faith, as Thomas affirms: “Since faith is imperfect knowledge, its reward consists in perfectly understanding it, as Jesus said: ‘I will love him and will manifest myself to Him” (Jn 14:21).
The First Letter to the Corinthians states: “We see now through a glass in a dark manner, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Augustine comments: “Contemplation is the reward of faith, by which reward our hearts are cleansed through faith” (Augustine, On the Trinity, 10). The Acts of the Apostles speaks of God “cleansing their hearts through faith” (Acts 15:9).
Hebrews states “Jesus … endured the Cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). Thomas recalls the bitterness of Jesus’ torment: “His hands and feet were nailed to the Cross and the shame and ignominy of His death because this was the most shameful of deaths.”
Hebrews continues, “… He now sits at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). Thomas points out: “The exaltation of Christ’s humanity was the reward of His Passion.”
Thomas advises us: “… looking on Jesus and not only looking, but also think diligently upon Him, i.e. think again upon Him who endured such opposition from sinners against Himself.” Thomas remembers that the Book of Proverbs says, “In all your ways think of Him” (Prov 3:6).
Thomas says, “An example of every virtue is found in the Cross … as Augustine said, ‘the Cross was not only the altar on which He suffered but the chair from which He taught.” Thomas reflects that Jesus teaches every virtue on the Cross:
Look also consider, i.e., again and again, him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself: ‘In all your ways think of him’ (Pr. 3:6). The reason for this is that the remedy for every tribulation is found in the cross:
For obedience to God is found there: ‘He humbled himself, being made obedient’ (Phil 2:8);
so is piety towards one’s parents, because He provided for His mother there;
and also love of neighbor; hence, He prayed for sinners: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Lk. 23:34);
‘Walk in love, as Christ loved you and delivered himself for you’ (Eph. 5:2);
and patience in adversity: ‘I was dumb and was humbled and kept silence from good things: and my sorrow was renewed’ (Ps. 38:30; ‘He shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter, and shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer, and he shall not open his mouth’ (Is. 53:7);
and final perseverance in all things; hence He persevered to the end: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Lk. 23:46).
As Hebrews says, “Remember how He endured the opposition of sinners; hence do not grow despondent and abandon the struggle.” Thomas reflects: “The consideration of Christ’s Passion makes us not fail: Thomas recalls the words of St. Gregory: “If Christ’s Passion is recalled to mind, nothing is too difficult to bear with equanimity.”
Thomas reflects: “Let us not fall away from the truth of faith, as though weary in mind.” Thomas calls to mind the words of Isaiah: “They shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is 40:3).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/