The 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” was based on the lives of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two athletes who competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics. Liddell, a devout Christian, is often quoted as having said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” By this, he meant that he thought his athletic talents were God-given and that to use his talents must surely bring pleasure to God.
Liddell is probably best remembered for refusing to compete on Sunday, as he thought this to be a violation of the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. I thought of Eric Liddell’s deep religious convictions when I read this Sunday’s first reading.
The two books called “Chronicles” in the Hebrew Scriptures are a re-telling of the history of Hebrew religion. First Chronicles begins with the life of Abraham and continues until the life of King David. Second Chronicles picks up the narrative and continues until the time of the Babylonian Exile. Our reading this Sunday is the final few paragraphs of Second Chronicles; it explains that the faithlessness of the people of Jerusalem and Judah led to their downfall and captivity.
In language reminiscent of the joke about corrupt electoral practices in the City of Chicago, the Chronicler says that God sent prophets “early and often” to dissuade His people from their sins. (2 Chron 36:15) According to the Chronicler, God was an intent on holding onto the Chosen People as Richard Daley was intent on holding onto political power. Sadly, the people “mocked God’s messengers, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets.” (2 Chron 36:16)
The People’s faithlessness led to their defeat by the Babylonian army. Apparently, the lack of faith in the Kingdom of Judah was so widespread and severe that it wearied the land as well as God. The Chronicler wrote, “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.” (2 Chron 36:21) The Babylonian Exile didn’t last quite seventy years, but near enough. During the time it lay fallow and abandoned, the Land of Promise recuperated from the widespread sinfulness of its former residents.
As I said above, I thought of Eric Liddell when I read this passage of Scripture. He was a man who never wasted a Sabbath; he was deeply devout – even to the point of refusing to compete in the Olympics on a Sunday. If only all of us could make a similar claim about our lives. If I had to guess, there are a lot of lost Sabbaths represented in this church today.
As tragic as it is to think that we’ve wasted Sabbath opportunities to serve God, there is always the possibility of retrieving our lost Sabbaths. When I say “lost Sabbaths,” I’m not referring only to skipping Mass on Sunday, nor only to self-serving work done on Sunday. Refused opportunities to serve the poor, missed invitations to forgive those who offend us, distracting ourselves with frantic activity as an excuse not to pray daily – these and all our moral failings amount to lost Sabbaths.
Lent is an opportunity to acknowledge what’s lacking in our faith, repent of our failings, and retrieve our lost Sabbaths. Lent asks us to give up a little comfort, a few luxuries, to give extra attention to prayer and almsgiving, and all for the purpose of experiencing a little bit of spiritual emptiness. The spiritual emptiness to which I refer is not the emptiness caused by selfishness or suffering; rather, it is the emptiness that creates the attitude that made Eric Liddell acknowledge God as the source of his athletic abilities.
Liddell’s athletic talent was so extraordinary that he could have become the type of celebrity best known for self-satisfaction and attention-getting. Instead, he acknowledged God as the source of both his talents and his successes.
The residents of Jerusalem and Judea chose to rely on their own efforts and military power to protect them; the result was their defeat and humiliation. We live at a time when we are taught to take personal credit for all our abilities and successes; the result of our faithlessness is easy enough to see. Surrounded by wealth and comfort, we feel deprived. Drowned by leisure and pleasure, we feel cheated. Intoxicated with control over our lives and the lives of others, we feel victimized. We need to recover the lost Sabbaths in our lives; we need to acknowledge the source of all the good we enjoy.
What I’ve said is, of course, cultural heresy in the United States. It is an unforgivable sin today to avoid making oneself the center of attention. You might, however, ask yourself if you are truly happy with the life you lead and the world in which you live. If you find that there’s something important missing, I suggest that the missing quantity is gratitude to God. Lent is an invitation to acknowledge our insufficiency; as shocking as this proposal is, it is also the only way to experience God’s consolation and strength.