Monday, February 27, 2006

Her Race Wasn’t Over—And Neither Is Ours!

Lindsey Jacobellis tumbles her way to silver.

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 5, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2006]

Her race wasn’t over—but she acted like it was.

And it cost her the gold medal.

I’m talking about Lindsey Jacobellis, the U.S. Olympic snowboarder, who was ahead by fifty yards in the women’s snowboard cross final a couple of weeks ago in Torino, Italy, with only about a hundred yards left in the race.

She was literally coasting to an easy victory—one of the easiest of her career—until she allowed pride to get the better of her. (And you all know what the Bible says about pride, right? In Proverbs 16: 18 it says that pride precedes a fall! Someone needed to quote that line to Lindsey before the race began.)

In a moment she will never forget as long as she lives, she decided to showboat a little for the cameras during her second-to-last jump by reaching down and grabbing hold of the back of her snowboard (a move that snowboarders call “method air”).

And that’s precisely what she did. Unfortunately, however, when she came back down to earth, she slipped, fell, and tumbled off the course just a few yards from the finish line. She tried as quickly as she could to get back on track, but it was too late. Those few short seconds were more than enough time for her nearest competitor, Tanja Frieden of Switzerland, to pass her, cross the line, and win the gold medal. Lindsey had to settle for the silver.

From the moment Lindsey Jacobellis left the starting gate, until the moment she finally crossed the finish line, her race wasn’t over.

And neither, my brothers and sisters, is ours! Our race is also not over! How important it is for us to understand that! Here, of course, I’m not talking about snowboard racing (as a dedicated skier, I don’t even like snowboarding!). Rather, I’m talking here about life—this earthly life we’re all blessed to be experiencing right now! St. Paul, on more than one occasion, made this comparison in his letters. He compared this mortal life of ours to a race, the prize of which is eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

That, I would say, is a very fitting analogy. It’s definitely one that Lindsey Jacobellis could easily understand, given her recent experience at the Olympics.

She missed out on the big prize because she made the fatal mistake of thinking that her snowboard race was over when it really wasn’t.

Well, believe it or not, the very same thing can happen to us with respect to the ultimate prize of eternal life, if we make the serious mistake of becoming complacent and thinking that we’ve already “arrived” (spiritually speaking).

In today’s second reading from 1 Peter 3, for example, the very first pope reminds us that sanctifying grace—the grace Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection— the grace we need in our souls in order to get into heaven—comes through the sacrament of Baptism. Noah and his family in the Old Testament were saved by “passing through” the waters of the great flood. That event, Peter says (and here I quote) “prefigured Baptism, which saves you now.” In other words, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, gives to each of us the grace of salvation, as we “pass through” the waters of the baptismal font.

That’s wonderful. That’s good news! But, unfortunately, it leads some Catholics to mistakenly believe that they’ve got it made! They don’t think they need Mass; they don’t think they need Confession; they don’t think they need to pray every day; they don’t even think they need to live a morally upright life. After all, they’ve been baptized! They’re card-carrying members of the Church! They’ve been saved!

Like Lindsey Jacobellis, they act as if their race is over—but it isn’t! Yes, it’s true, Baptism did bring them sanctifying grace. But that grace can be lost through mortal sin! And committing a mortal sin is a very real possibility, as long as our hearts are beating and we still have breath within us.

This is one of the reasons why Lent is so important! This is why Lent, for all its challenges, is really a great blessing! In fact, if someone ever says to you, “What’s the point of Lent? Why do you give up things and pray more and perform more acts of charity during this season of the year?” you should respond, “It’s because I know that my race isn’t over yet! It’s because I know that I need this season. I have a prize that I’m seeking: HEAVEN! And I’m bound and determined to stay on the narrow road that leads to that goal. But I also know how weak I am. I know that, just like Lindsey Jacobellis, I can easily let pride get the better of me. And when that happens, mortal sin isn’t very far away. So during these 40 days of Lent I make a special effort to deal with my weaknesses: I pray more frequently, because I know that through prayer (and especially through the Mass) I receive the grace I need to stay on course—on that narrow road that leads to life. I fast and engage in other acts of self-denial to discipline my body and mind, so that my flesh doesn’t lead me off course and into serious sin. And I give alms and perform extra works of charity to lessen my attachment to the things of this world. Because the more I’m attached to money and objects, the easier it is for me to get off track.”

Let’s pray at this Mass for ourselves and for one another: that we will have the good sense to take a lesson from Lindsey Jacobellis and never act as if our race is over—until it is!

And yet, as we do this, we need to remember that there is one very big difference between her experience on the race course during the Olympics, and our experience in life . . . .

Once she made her prideful mistake, Lindsey Jacobellis couldn’t do anything about it. As soon as she hit the snow and veered off that race course, her fate in the final of the women’s snowboard cross was sealed. The gold medal was gone.

But if we should happen to get off course at some point by committing a mortal sin, all is not lost. As long as we’re still alive, we have the opportunity to get back on track and win the eternal prize. All we need to do is enter one of those little rooms on either side of the church and say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . . “

May all those Catholics who have fallen and are presently off the race course, do that during this season of Lent.