Written by Vladimir Moss


     Life is a race for the prize of salvation; and few there be who win it. We are reminded of this in the service for today’s feast, that of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste: “With steadfast intent the Christ-loving mother took upon her should him to whom she had given birth; and she offered him up as a fruit of piety, a martyr among martyrs, emulating the sacred action of Abraham. ‘Make thy journey straight to everlasting life, O my son, the Christ-loving mother cried out to her Christ-loving child, ‘for I could not bear see thee appear in second place before Christ, the Judge of the contest!’”[1]

     If this is an unexpected metaphor for some, let us remind ourselves that it occurs frequently in the epistles of the holy Apostle Paul. Thus “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” (I Corinthians 9.24) And again: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12.1) And again: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (II Timothy 4.7)

     Let us pursue this metaphor a little…

     What are the rules of the race of life? There are rules of faith and of conduct.

     The rule of faith is the correct map to the finishing line. Such a map is given to us by the race organizer, God, through the holy Apostles and holy Fathers of the Church. Unfortunately, there are many fake maps in existence given out by pseudo-guides and race organizers. Like some modern satnavs, which lead those who follow them to the edge of a cliff, these fake maps may be wrong in only one turn, but this false turn is sufficient to ruin any chance of winning the race of life. The Lord warned about such false guides: “Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your path” (Isaiah 3.12). And again: “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. They [the Pharisees, the heretics, the pseudo-guides] are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” (Matthew 15.14).And again: “Hold fast what you have, that no man take your crown” (Revelation 3.11)… Some think that following fake guides and maps should not disqualify a runner – he should be allowed to start the race again – or be rewarded for his speed of foot alone (i.e. be saved by his works alone), even if it is in the wrong direction (the wrong faith). But God has warned against false prophets, so we cannot avoid blame if we follow them. As Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich writes: "Are the people at fault if godless elders and false prophets lead them onto foreign paths? The people are not at fault to as great an extent as their elders and the false prophets, but they are at fault to some extent. For God gave to the people also to know the right path, both through their conscience and through the preaching of the word of God, so that people should not blindly have followed their blind guides, who led them by false paths that alienated them from God and His Laws."[2] 

     Then there are the rules of conduct. The first of these relate to registration: legitimate runners must confess the true faith and have received the bath of baptism. They will then be given special colours which indicate to the angels, the race stewards, that they have been written in the list of legitimate contestants – that is, the book of life – from which, however, they can still be erased at a later stage. The rules of conduct allow runners to have coaches and doctors – priests and holy intercessors. In fact, they stand little chance of winning without them. Also necessary is the use of rest-points, the churches, where vital food is given, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Without this, the runners will soon collapse from exhaustion, for the race is long and hard… However, by the side of the road there are also illegitimate rest-points with quack doctors, and even pleasure parks and bordellos, which competitors must avoid… Since the runners will be attacked along the way by snakes and wild beasts, the evil passions, they are given special instruments – the sword of faith, in particular – to ward them off. If, however, they are wounded by these animals, they are allowed to stop in at a legitimate rest-point and receive treatment from properly trained doctors. A special danger is other runners – wolves in sheep’s clothing – who try and trip up the legitimate runners. The latter are given special instructions on how to ward them off (the breastplate of righteousness is a vital defence). They are warned, however, that they must not retaliate against these false brethren, but must rather help them if they fall into trouble. This rule has been considered unfair by many competitors, but the race organizer has insisted that refusal to help fellow competitors leads to disqualification. And to encourage competitors, they are told that, if they help a fellow competitor, and especially a hostile fellow competitor, they will be given special wings that take them several miles ahead in the twinkling of any eye… Indeed, it is an open secret that even very unfit and sluggish competitors can win the race of life by this means alone…

     Special problems arise for competitors in the last times. First, the race in that period is almost empty of competitors; the roads look very empty. This removes a certain incentive to race hard, instils thoughts of loneliness, even despair, and also tempts competitors to think that they must be on the wrong path. For in the distance they see many competitors running joyfully in the opposite direction - but do not see them falling over the cliff because of their false satnavs… However, they have been warned at the beginning: “Do not follow thousands to destruction.” To make things worse, there are very few correct maps, and almost no properly qualified doctors or rest-points. However, this generation of competitors are consoled by the knowledge that the race organizer is aware of the special difficulties of their struggle and takes account of them in His final judgements…

     When the competitors cross the finishing line, the process of adjudication begins, and lasts a few days. The stewards examine all complaints of foul play, and the race organizer, assisted by the holy Apostles sitting on special thrones, gives the final verdicts, crown and punishments. There is no appeal process…


March 9/22, 2016.

Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.

[1]Menaion, March 9, Service to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, Mattins, Canon, Ode 8, troparia.

[2]Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, The Prologue from Ohrid.

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