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The most amazing race of all

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP with World Youth Day pilgrims who journeyed to Portugal from Timor-Leste. Photo: Supplied

With 87 winning teams in over 15 franchises so far, The Amazing Race is the most popular reality TV adventure show of all time. Teams of two with a limited budget traverse the globe on various forms of transport, navigating unfamiliar territory, solving puzzles, interacting with locals, and overcoming physical and mental challenges in a mad dash to the finish line.

Teams are progressively eliminated until there are just three pairs left scrambling for the million-dollar cash prize. The fast-paced human drama, set against some spectacular backdrops, makes for compelling viewing.

The Amazing Race has had American, Australian, Brazilian, Canadian, Chinese, Filipino, French, Israeli, Latin American, Norwegian, Ukrainian and Vietnamese versions, but none yet from the Iberian peninsula.

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Perhaps you are all unwitting contestants in the first Portuguese series—which might explain any gruelling challenges you’ve had getting here or may yet have on this pilgrimage!

Though there was no reality TV in biblical times, God is clearly a fan of the drama-filled journey. You can read the Old Testament as a series of amazing races or great adventures, with an array of characters overcoming various challenges or being overcome by them, showcasing tenacity, teamwork and trust in the one hand, or duplicity, division and disaster on the other.

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were charged with stewarding creation and quarantining one of the fruit-trees; but they failed their first challenge, and left the integral ecology of Eden for the Earth damaged by the fall, where tilling the ground is hard, thorns compete with crops, and hard labour produces more sweat than fruit (Gen 3:9).

Their descendant Noah experienced the worst ever example of human-induced climate change, and had to take his family along with a whole zoo on an indeterminate sea journey (Gen chs 6-8). Abraham’s amazing race saw him uprooting his family and trekking around Canaan at age 75 (Gen 12).

His descendants were enslaved in Egypt, until God’s chosen team-leader Moses led them forth on a 40-year-long journey in the wilderness (Ex). Joshua then led them across the apparent finishing line into the land of milk and honey (Deut). Despite our heroes No and Mo, Abe and Josh winning their particular series, a seemingly endless series of trials awaited Israel in the Promised Land.

In every case there were divine helps and human hindrances along the way, puzzles to be solved and character demonstrated. Some succeeded and others failed. The race continued and no-one knew quite where the finishing line was.

Many people still live as if uncertain about the goal of life and how to achieve it, about their personal vocation and how they might best serve and thrive, and about whether all this affects their ultimate destiny. When challenged they are as clueless as some of the contestants in Amazing Race Old Testament.

But the divine Producer did not leave us without clues in life, in our very nature and in the natural order around us. Eventually he sent us his Son as the greatest of coaches for our Amazing Race New Testament. Jesus would remind us that God loved us into being, as creatures made in his image, with intellect, freedom and affection.

That he demonstrated still greater love in giving his only Son for our salvation; that that divine Son ran greatest ever human race, navigating all the challenges of a human life. That we, too, have only one life and that life is a race to the finishing line. That by God’s grace we can make a good run of it, cultivating virtues, informing our faith and conscience, worshipping and praying to God, and living Christian lives fruitful in witness, outreach and service.

And that, having run the race to the finish, we can expect a reward far greater and more enduring than any reality TV series may offer. Our race is ultimately a race to be with God, an experience which Jesus compares today with finding a treasure in a field so precious you’d give your all for it, or a pearl so enchanting you’d sell up everything to get it (Mt 13:44-46).

The life of faith is an amazing race, then, one that requires giving your all. Like the newly pregnant Mary, not resting on her laurels, but arising and going with haste to visit her still more pregnant cousin in the Judaean hills. Like the Magi journeying through foreign lands in search of the infant king of the Jews. Like Joseph leading Mary and her unborn Child to Bethlehem, then taking the two to the Presentation in the Temple and then protecting both in the Flight into Egypt (no, it was not an aeroplane flight!).

We think of the amazing race of Jesus Himself, making the exitus and reditus, leaving heaven and returning, but in the meantime assuming our nature and all our challenges, teaching the teachers as a young person in his Father’s house. We think of him conducting his ministry of teaching and healing, with peripatetic lessons for this rag-tag group of disciples who would eventually grow into his church. His race, of course, culminated with Calvary, the greatest of all challenges, so much more real than any reality TV. There on the cross he expressed the fullness of divine and human love, laying down of his life so that we might have life unending.

There’s a seriousness and urgency to the race of life. It’s not just a game, even if some people treat it that way. We’ve only got one life, so we mustn’t waste it. We’ve got one life in which to demonstrate heroic virtue, in which to share the Good News about Jesus Christ, in which to live that Gospel, conforming ourselves ever more closely to Christ. It’s serious. It’s urgent. But it’s also exciting. It stirs within us a profound joy such as moved Mary to “arise and go with haste” (Lk 1:39).

My dear young friends, the joy of the Gospel sparks the most amazing of all races: the race to be with God and for God in this life and then next. It has brought millions of young people halfway across the world to join you here in Lisbon. It’s a race that will transform you, like Moses in our first reading shining with divine glory after his encounter (Ex 34:29-35).

And it’s a race that will continue long after this week. Just as long-distance runners have aid stations providing them with food and water to replenish them for the journey, the spiritual aid-station of World Youth Day will nourish you with God’s grace so that you can “arise and go with haste” back to your life-race, your life-course, with a renewed sense of faith and God’s love beaming from your faces like Moses.

This is an edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the ‘Rise Up Meeting’ for World Youth Day 2023, Jardim da Avendia Joao Branco Nuncio, Lisbon, Wednesday 3 August 2023.

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