The race had begun at 7:00am, so by the time we arrived at our parish for 12:15 mass the first people were completing the race and the "victory village" just down the street from the church was bustling. Then the gospel for the day was:
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.” (LK 13:22-30)
Of course, talk about attaining heaven while thinking about athletic training, and Paul's comparison will naturally come to mind:
All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:23-27)
The comparison seems apt to me, because last year, at the urging of my team at work, I trained for and ran a half marathon. Paul wasn't kidding. The athlete does need to exercise discipline in every way. Just to run my 13.1 miles, I had to stick to a strict schedule of running 3-4 days a week, with the week's long run an ever increasing distance. I had to go to bed earlier than I wanted at times, had to follow certain rules as to what and when I ate. And that was nothing compared to the dedication it must take to prepare for the race that was going on outside. I've known a few people who have done Ironman runs and it involves not just a huge time commitment but a willingness to remake one's life to center on the run to a certain extent.
This is rather different from the way in which many people think about salvation. It seems current at the moment to be horrified at the idea that anyone might not be saved. The assumption, I think, is that heaven is something everyone would want (or at least that hell is something no one would want) and thus that someone only fails to attain heaven if God selfishly withholds heaven from him.
It's true that salvation is a gift. It is not a prize which we 'earn' through our efforts. And yet for us to become one with God's perfect goodness surely requires training on our part. If we are to choose the ultimate good, we must build up our strength by choosing the good at every turn. If it's worthwhile to train the body through rigor of rest, eating and training in order to run a race, how much more worth while to train the spirit towards union with God? Surely this is in some sense what Paul has in mind with his comparison to athletic training.
In the ideal sense, it is the proper function of the human body to run the race. And yet, fallen as we are, sunk in inactivity or busy with other things, our bodies may not be ready to run a race well, or at all. We have to train and conform our lives to a discipline in order to have the ability to run a race reliably. In the same sense, our souls are meant, in the ideal, to embrace and conform to God's will. Yet without training we can too easily focus our lives on everything except God, and when the time comes to run our race, find ourselves unable.