Forty years ago, when I was in high school, football practice was agrueling experience. Day after day the coaches drove us to the raggededge of exhaustion. Even on the most miserably hot, humid afternoons,no one thought to ask for a drink of water. To do so would have beenseen as a sign of craven weakness. Among the many exercises and drills,I remember one in particular, called leg raises. We would lie on our backswith our legs together and stretched out straight. In this posture, wewould raise our heels a foot off the turf, and maintain the position untilour leg and back muscles screamed for relief. Sometimes the screamingwas literal. I was a big strong kid with an outwardly placid disposition.
Sometimes, during the leg raises, the head coach would jump up anddown on my stomach, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Gordon, if you’dever get angry, we’d never lose a game!” We hardly ever lost a game inany case, largely out of fear of what the coach would do to us if we did. Iremember distinctly what it was like to troop back into the locker roomafter practice, the metal tipped cleats on our shoes clacking loudly on thelinoleum. Then, after a grateful drink at the water fountain (nothing sincehas ever tasted as good), I would stand in front of my locker and drag mybloody, sweaty, practice uniform off my body. To remove the wet, bulky,shoulder pads was bliss.
I’m reminded of that experience by the first words of today’sreading from Baruch: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning andmisery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” The Churchstands at the beginning of a new year. For many, the year just past hasborne some resemblance to the football practices I’ve just described. Wewere bloodied and exhausted, but we carried on. We kept showing up,and we’re still here. I’ve heard that young athletes today receive a”participation trophy” just for completing a season. Good for them. Ithink we all deserve a participation trophy for another year’s faithfulendurance. At least we get an Advent wreath. And we get the season ofAdvent a fresh start.Oh, there’s still everything to play for, but we’ve made a goodbeginning. Paul’s words to the Philippians are addressed to us as well: “Iam confident of this, that the one who began this good work in you willcontinue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” “The day of ChristJesus” that’s what we’re playing for. We are motivated, not by thedesire for a league championship, not by fear of the coach, but by love ofthe child whose birth in a manger we will soon celebrate the one whoseimminent arrival John announces in our Gospel. If athletes will strivemightily for a laurel wreath that fades, imagine what prodigies we willaccomplish for love of him. But for now, in this holy season, we strip offour robes of misery and mourning and are wrapped in the cloak of themercy and justice of God. We have come to the living water to berefreshed, so that we need never be thirsty again.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”