I was reading recently a sermon from my childhood priest, Fr. Charlie. He wrote, “Our life of faith is a journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.” It’s true: Saint Augustine says that, in baptism, we leave Egypt. And we begin a journey to heaven. Our reading from Hebrews uses a similar image, but bumps it up a notch, in saying that our life is like a race, a race towards the destination that is the Lord.
Jesus in the Gospels is always telling us to get moving, to be on our way–or on his way. In today’s Gospel, he tells us that when we follow him, sometimes people won’t like it. Either people will accept our journey of faith or they won’t, and when they won’t, divisions will enter in and that’s okay. Often it happens that, when people enter into the Holy Church and become Catholic, or when they take the step into seminary or religious life, or when they marry this or that person, or when they have a large family–often there are people in their families or friends or offices who have a problem with it. I have a friend whose parents didn’t come to his ordination to the priesthood, so mad were they. When we follow God down the right road, it is true that perhaps someone will no longer want much to do with us. But that’s okay: God is better.
But this race of faith, Hebrews has some good wisdom here.
First, Hebrews tells us that we are meant to keep going. There aren’t many armchairs along the Christian race towards the Promised Land. Some people get lazy, some forget they have a place to go, some walk around aimlessly, some quit when it gets hard. But Hebrews tells us to persevere with our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Second, Hebrews tells us that God is so good that he doesn’t expect us to make our race to the Promised Land alone. We have our families, our friends, our teachers, our priests. And we have the saints, the cloud of witnesses as Hebrews says it, helping us. The saints clap every time we do something good. And they boo when we do something bad.
I want to ask: how is your relationship with the saints? Do you pray with your confirmation patron every day? I have a recommendation: Go to americancatholic.org and register your email to receive an email each day with the saint of the day, only a couple paragraphs. I believe that if we read about the saints each day, they can inspire us to be better men and women, saints ourselves. It is a good tradition in our church to name your child after the saint of the day. Today is the feast day of St. Maximilan Kolbe, so if a baby were born today, it’d be nice to name him Max. Bottom line: we need to foster as best we can a relationship with the saints, for we need them for support and inspiration as we make our race towards the Promised Land.
Third, Hebrews says that as we make this journey, we have to eliminate all the sins and dirt that clings to us. Often in life, we collect dirt and junk around us. There is a character in Peanuts, the cartoon strip, named Pig Pen. Everywhere Pig Pen goes, a cloud of dirt follows him. This is true for us: we carry around resentments, anger, bitterness, many things. God says: get rid of these things. They are slowing you down, they are too heavy and you don’t need to carry them any longer. Shed them all so you can run the race to the Promised Land. The good news is that God can take care of this. Jesus tells us in our Gospel: I want to burn all the dirt away. I came to set you all on fire, he says. When we burn something, we can arrive at its core, at its essence. Most of us, our hearts are good. We just have to allow the Lord to burn away all the junk that is around us. The Holy Spirit (who is represented by fire) does that in the sacraments, and he also does this after we die. For that reason, we have purgatory. Very few of us are perfect when we finishes our earthly race, but in purgatory God burns all the junk off of us. (That is why we pray for our dead). It is the happy flames.
And then, pray God, we arrive in the Promised Land, our race having been completed. And then we join in the stands of the saints as we cheer on our great great grandkids on their own race.
“Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus….”