Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Great Britain continues to do well in the Rio Olympics – in 3rd place at the weekend – and some of you may have been watching it avidly, even into the early hours of the morning. The Games are certainly getting full TV coverage, to the point that Team GB’s acquisition of Olympic medals seems to be the first item on every news programme this past week. Sport, with its highly competitive nature, can be a very bonding activity. The Olympics at their best are a great opportunity for the competitors and fans of different nationalities to come together and share moments of great excitement. A real spirit of friendship can develop between the nations in a common pursuit of sporting excellence. On Friday the news was full of an Ethiopian runner who broke the world record for the 10,000 metres by over 14 seconds. She was the talk of the Games that day. After reaching the finishing line, she crossed herself – no doubt her faith in God was a great inspiration to her in her sporting achievement.
In our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today the author of the letter uses an image from athletics to describe the journey of faith –
“let us …lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”.
The passage comes at the end of a long catalogue of heroes of faith in the Old Testament and the trials they endured, going right back to the early stories of Genesis – Abel, Enoch and Noah – all men of faith, and then on to Abraham and the patriarchs and Moses. Our passage for today continues the list with the faith of the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea, and then goes on to the judges and prophets and King David. The excruciating sufferings of these heroes and heroines of faith are depicted in some detail. Finally, at the climax of this long list of heroes, comes Jesus. By their examples of faith and perseverance, they have all been leading up to and preparing for Jesus. He is the one most of all to whom we need to look for inspiration in our own faith journey.
So there is good Biblical precedence for comparing our spiritual journey through life to an athletes’ race. And it is a race not for worldly honours, but rather for spiritual attainment – for the deepening of our faith, our hope and above all our love for God. And both faith and love are revealed in action. The spiritual giants listed in the Letter to the Hebrews believed so profoundly in God and God’s promises that they were prepared to be tortured and even to die for their faith. The letter describes how –
“we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses …”.
The writer here imagines that the departed heroes of the faith are like people gathered in a sports stadium, cheering us all on as we run our own present day spiritual race. And we need to keep our eyes on Jesus, just as an athlete keeps his or her thoughts fixed on the prospect of being first to cross the finishing line. The saints and martyrs of our faith are alive – sharing their life with God in heaven – and they pray for us, and we can pray to them.
Tomorrow is the major feast in the Church of England calendar of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the mother of Jesus, and pre-eminent among the saints. In the New Testament she appears prominently in the birth stories of Jesus and she is also present at his death on the cross and she is with the disciples at Pentecost. Since the fourth century Mary was given the title of “Theotokos” or “God-bearer” and countless icons have been painted of her, in many of which she holds the infant Jesus. The six principal feasts observed in the West concerning Mary are those of her conception, her birth, the Annunciation, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, Candlemas and tomorrow’s feast day, her principal feast. Strictly speaking, however, both the Annunciation and Candlemas are feasts of our Lord, in which Mary plays a prominent part. Tomorrow, her principal feast day, has in the East often been referred to as her Dormition, and in the West as her Assumption into heaven. Christians may vary on what they believe here. But one thing we can be certain of – that Mary died, even if we differ on what we believe concerning the manner of her death. So tomorrow is a celebration of her whole life, remembering her day of death and therefore her birthday in heaven. From the Biblical accounts it is clear that Mary was gifted with great faith, and was obedient to her unique calling, to conceive and give birth to Jesus, God in the flesh. And so today, anticipating tomorrow, we give thanks to God for Mary and her part in the divine scheme of our redemption.
Today – 14 August – is the feast day of a 20th century martyr, Maximilian Kolbe. You can see his statue alongside other 20th century martyrs over the West Door of Westminster Abbey. Born in 1894, Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan Priest, who lectured in Church History. His Franciscan Community produced daily and weekly journals for Christian readers. After the Nazi invasion of Poland Maximilian was arrested and taken to Auschwitz in May 1941. He continued with his priestly ministry among the prisoners, secretly celebrating the eucharist. If anyone attempted to escape from the camp, men from the same bunker were selected for death by starvation. After such an escape, men from Maximilian’s bunker were paraded. One of them who was selected shouted out in despair. Kolbe immediately stepped forward saying,
“I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.”
Kolbe went to the death chamber and prepared his companions to die by reciting prayers, psalms and meditating on Christ’s passion. After two weeks of starvation only a few men who had been selected were alive, and Kolbe was the only one still fully conscious. He was injected with phenol and died on this day, 14 August, aged 47. He was canonised in 1982.
The saints and martyrs are both an encouragement and an inspiration to us in our own faith journey. We may not have to suffer as they did. Yet each one of us as Christians has a cross to bear in some form or another. At times when our own sufferings can seem too burdensome, the stories of the saints and martyrs can help us to remember that when we truly follow Christ there inevitably will be consequences that may lead to suffering. At such times more than ever we need to look to Jesus, and gain strength from his own example of undaunted perseverance.