Well, THAT was exciting! I got home Saturday evening in time to tune in to the Raptors-Bucks game near the end of the third quarter. I watched as the Toronto team came back from what had been a fifteen point deficit to win the Eastern Conference of the NBA. So, for the first time in the history of this franchise, the Raptors are now headed for the NBA final round. Fever for the finals has gripped the people of Toronto, and a good portion of Canada as well, I should think. Fans are going crazy.
I marvel at the skill of those athletes, and cannot even begin to imagine the years of training and hours upon hours of practice that have brought them to this level of skill and to the top tier of the league. And all of this in pursuit of a coveted prize: the championship trophy.
It puts me in mind of an important teaching of St. Paul: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one.” (1Cor 9:25) The “crown” that does not perish is eternal life. To attain it requires practice and training on our part, but in a way that is very different from normal athletic custom. Salvation is entirely God’s gift; in no way can it be merited. Our practice aims at disposing ourselves more and more to receive God’s grace, which is bestowed in order to transform us into the holy people, the saints, that He calls each of us to be. Top athletes are especially qualified to begin with; their practice hones and perfects their skills. As regards salvation, each of us starts out as radically unqualified – we are sinners in need of mercy – so our practice and training aim at opening our hearts and minds to receive God’s gifts that make us qualified for the prize.
Practice what, exactly? “Whoever loves me will keep my word.” (John 14:23) These are the words of Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel passage we heard at mass on Sunday. Our call is to practice – day after day and year after year – keeping the words that Jesus has spoken to us. Here in the Archdiocese we are approaching this in terms of living in the Word of God. In terms of daily practice, this means hearing and doing, that is to say, making time daily to listen to Sacred Scripture by reading the Bible and then putting the Word into practice by “doing” what have long been recognized to be the three pillars of the Christian life: worship, witness and service.
By the grace of Jesus Christ, we are in the “final round” of world history. That grace aims to keep us there so as to be crowned with the gift of salvation when the Lord returns again. We cannot, though, be complacent and must guard against the sin of presumption. Those star athletes that we saw advance to the finals on Saturday night will be the first to tell us that, in their context, nothing can be taken for granted. Constant practice is a must. The same is true for the Christian life. We rely with hope on the mercy of God, and thus train constantly by practicing His Word.