Champion athletes are always asked, minutes after winning, “Can you do it again next year?” Vegas lays odds almost immediately on a repeat victory. But there are so many variables. So many things change between the end of one season and even the beginning of the next, let alone another shot at the title. After competing, after the end of the season, every athlete takes a brief rest, reorients themselves, and puts a date on the calendar for the start of training for the next season. No athlete thinks they can rest on their achievements of the last season. They know that if they are to be competitive, if they are to win, they must be disciplined. They know they must put in the hard work and the long hours. They know they must endure the rigors of training and make the sacrifices necessary to strengthen themselves for facing their opposition. As they face the temptation of backing off just a little, just for one day, they remind themselves that nobody ever drowned in sweat; that pain is weakness leaving the body; that victory comes to those who are disciplined enough to do the hard work every day.
But the true test, however, isn’t the first competition of the season. It’s further down the line, after the season has worn on, when the injuries pile up and the bodies ache. The grueling pounding of a full season of competition takes its toll on mind, body, and spirit, but the champions always find a way to push through to victory despite every adversity they face along the way. And in the end, they find themselves on the victor’s stage surrounded by throngs of loyal, cheering fans who had followed them on their journey, through every up and down and twist and turn.
The devotion we as a society place upon our athletes is quite remarkable. Think about how much time is spent following a favorite athlete or team… the hours of reading sporting news, playing in fantasy leagues, watching games and highlight videos and sports shows, or waiting in line to get an autograph or picture. Think about the money spent on jerseys and tickets and autographed memorabilia, the shrines we build to our favorite teams and players. Modern-day gladiators have become our gods and the modern-day colosseum has become our church. Imagine if we had the same enthusiasm for our faith that we have for our favorite sports teams and athletes. Imagine if our churches thundered with the voices of the faithful the way sports stadiums and arenas do with the voices of the fans. Imagine if we as a society put the same amount of time, money, and effort into our faith as we put into sports. Imagine.
Enjoying sports isn’t a bad thing, but we need to keep things in perspective about what’s really important: the future of our eternal souls is not a game, and there is no off-season. But we do have an annual training camp that we call “Lent”, and it begins on Ash Wednesday. We need to be as disciplined in our faith as champion athletes are at their sport. Lent is not a time to take it easy, to do the minimum, to say, “I’ll give up chocolate, that will be good enough.” Prayer, sacrifice, fasting, and abstinence are all exercise for our souls. And the more disciplined we are, the harder we work our souls during our training camp, the stronger we will be in our faith and the more prepared we will be to face Satan’s daily temptations.
How well we prepare mentally and spiritually during Lent will become evident as the year wears on and the hardships we face test our spiritual resolve. Every day we succeed in resisting temptation, we are asked, “can you do it again tomorrow?” Unlike athletes, we cannot rest our souls, even for a day. The stronger in our faith we become, the more we will be tested. We all will face adversities that will test our preparedness and the strength of our faith, and how serious we take the training camp of this Lent — and every Lent — will determine how well we are able to push through to victory when the only thing we have to rely on is our faith.
If we stay steadfast and disciplined in strengthening our faith, in our final hour we will find ourselves on the victor’s stand surrounded by cheering saints who have been following every twist and turn of our lives, praying for us, and cheering for the eternal victory of our souls. But we haven’t won anything yet. Training camp is about to begin. Let’s make the most of it.