Running the race, keeping the faith
Three things that inspire runners during a road race – faith, freedom and focus – also are essential if we are to be victorious in the daily “race” of Christian living, noted Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri, speaking to more than 450 faithful gathered inside Our Lady Star of the Sea Church for the 31st annual Black Saints Celebration.
At the event’s culminating prayer service on Nov. 14, Bishop Cheri reflected on how the author of the Book of Hebrews used athletic imagery in the beginning of his 12th chapter to challenge his audience of discouraged early Christian believers to “persevere in running the race” before them.
Faith is the key
Foremost in this racing “survival kit” is faith.
“The Christian life begins by placing our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and what he did at a blood-soaked hill called Calvary,” Bishop Cheri said. “It is through faith in his shed blood and his resurrection that we enter the race.”
Bishop Cheri added that there are helpers prodding us along the way. Like runners who strive to emulate the great athletes of the past, a Christian can be bolstered by what the author of Hebrews calls the great “cloud of witnesses” – holy men and women who have already run their race and completed it well.
Bishop Cheri said that in addition to the faith-filled Biblical heavyweights listed in Hebrews – figures such as Noah, Abraham and Moses – black Catholics can draw special inspiration from the church’s legion of canonized black saints, a list that includes Augustine, Martin de Porres, Moses the Black, Josephine Bakhita and three popes.
“They have proved by their lives that the life of faith is the only life to live!” Bishop Cheri said. “The same God who was their God is our God. The God of yesterday is the God of today and tomorrow.”
The pep talk contained in Hebrews suggests that like successful runners, the faith of a successful Christian must have perseverance as its hallmark, even when “hurdles, hindrances and hurts” arise on the course, Bishop Cheri said.
“We will always run into things or people or circumstances that will seek to hinder and hamper and halt us in our Christian living. To endure, faith is essential,” he said. “Faith in God will keep us going (even) when we feel like quitting.”
Freedom is a second essential element to being victorious in both physical races and the Christian life, Bishop Cheri said. The Hebrews passage urges the faithful to lay aside “every burden and sin that clings to us” – anything that inhibits our running.
“In the Grecian Olympic Games, all bodily hindrances had to be laid aside,” he said. “Likewise, heavenly runners – isn’t that what we are? – must lay aside all weights within and without that would impede spiritual progress.”
Also entangling the feet of the runner – and the Christian – is sin, the unrighteous things that we do, Bishop Cheri said.
“Is there one particular sin that hinders the Christian life? Yes. It is unbelief, doubting God,” he said. “Unbelief was the sin that tripped up Israel and robbed a whole generation of the joys of the Promised Land. Unbelief arises from our unwillingness to step out upon the promise of God. Faith enables, but unbelief tangles.”
Finally, the author of Hebrews reminds Christians that focus is required if we are to successfully run the unique race set for us by God. Sometimes we can get so taken up with the spectators around us and the race someone else is running, that we lose sight of the race to which we are being called, Bishop Cheri said.
“We cannot run somebody else’s race – we can’t go to the Promised Land with an Egyptian mentality,” he said. “We do not choose the course; God chooses the course that each of us is to run. Our race is not against each other. We must be free from trying to outrun each other. We must be free from trying to run the race that was given to someone else. Run in your own lane. Stay in your own lane. We will be rewarded if we run this race God has set for us!”
Keep gaze fixed on Jesus
Rather than looking at the crowd, the author of Hebrews rallies Christians to keep their eyes singularly fixed on Jesus.
“In running, where you look is extremely important – nothing will throw you off your stride or slow you down more than looking at your feet or the runner coming behind you or the crowds in the stands,” Bishop Cheri said. “The Christian life is very much just like that. Our focus is so important. Note the direction of our gaze. We are not to focus on the crowd but on the Christ. The Christian life commenced with a look at Jesus, and it will culminate with a look at Jesus. In the in-between time, we should continue looking on Jesus.”
Bishop Cheri concluded with one more running analogy: The quality of one’s race is dependent upon the grace of God.
“The Greeks had a race in their Olympic games that was unique. The winner was not the runner who finished first; it was the runner who finished with his torch still lit,” Bishop Cheri said. “I don’t know about you, but I want to run all the way with the flame of my torch still lit for Jesus. Let me encourage all of us to keep looking for Jesus!”
The Black Saints Celebration, which included a parade of black Saints in the adjacent St. Roch neighborhood, was sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministries.