Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Spiritual Olympics Begin (Ash Wednesday)

Preached at St. Thomas Aquinas High School 

How many of you watched the Olympics?

It was hard to stay away from the TV. Sometimes it was hard to believe anyone could skate so fast, or ski so high. It seemed almost impossible athletes could be so good.

How do you think those Olympians managed to do such amazing things? What was the key to it all? Natural ability? Great genes?

You can bet on that. But it’s only half the story. The other half was sacrifice and countless hours of tough training. Every athlete had devoted years of hard work and fierce competition to their sport. And for what? To win a couple ounces of gold, silver or bronze.

Lent is like a spiritual Olympics–we do more, we try harder, we become more ambitious for the things of heaven. Only we’re after a far greater prize than the medals of glory worn by the Olympians–we want to become saints.

St. Paul says the same thing in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.”

And the apostle adds some good coaching advice: “Run to win.” I’m no athletic expert, but I’m 100 per cent certain that someone who shoots for silver doesn’t even take the bronze.

Today’s the beginning of Lent. Today’s the day to ask ourselves whether we’re running to win. In the Gospel, Jesus uses the word “reward” four times. He’s talking, of course, about the imperishable crown of victory that St. Paul mentions—eternal life.

But if we have to wait until we die to receive that reward, many of us—especially young people—might think it’s not worth the work, at least not now. But if not now, when? That’s why the second reading today shouts out “now!” “Now is the acceptable time: see, now is the day of salvation!”

Deciding not to start reaching for spiritual goals until after high school is like waiting until graduation to start training for the Olympics. There are virtually no elite athletes who didn’t start making serious sacrifices in their early teens, if not before.

At the same time, God is kind to late starters who are willing to make a real push. In the first reading, God says “even now… return to me with all your heart.” The prophet Amos says that those who return to God with real sorrow for sin can trust in his mercy, and hope for a blessing instead of punishment.

Ash Wednesday is a great day for smart people. Smart people live by their priorities; they put first things first. Today we can decide, like athletes do, whether the prize is worth the work. We can decide to take training seriously, with the sacrifices that will require.

Those decisions are positive and negative—they determine what we’ll do, and what we won’t. Positively, we will turn to God with sorrow for sin, expressed by the ashes on our foreheads, and start planning a Lenten confession. Negatively, we will turn away from sin, especially what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the sin that clings easily to us—in other words, the sin we most like to cling to and which draws us away from God.

Most great victories come as a result of some simple decisions, faithfully followed. Our spiritual “Olympics” is no exception.

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