Brothers and sisters, all the saints through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were killed by the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented - of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that easily distracts, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
"...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus..."
In Orthodox Christianity we have something called asceticism. Usually it is understood to mean a spiritual and theological discipline, something that only monks and very strict people practice. Asceticism is certainly practice by monks, but it is not limited to them. In fact, asceticism is part of Christian life. We all practice it.
The word asceticism literally means polishing, smoothing, refining. It is a Greek word, and the Greeks (in their pagan times) used it to designate the exercises of the athletes, by which, the powers dormant in the body were developed, and the body itself was trained to its full natural beauty. The point of these ascetical exercises was not to look good and built, but the victory in public games, competitions, . As we can see, for Greeks, asceticism was very much a physical discipline.
Christians took this term and applied it to their spiritual life as well. We may not focus so much on bodybuilding and looking good (even though, there is nothing wrong with those things, as long as they don't become the point of our life), but since our life is both physical and spiritual, we do physical and spiritual exercises in order to awaken or unlock, if you will, powers dormant in the body. We believe these powers to be God-given, since we are created in His image; and they are hidden, generally speaking, because of our sinfulness.
We also train the body to its full natural (both physical and spiritual), God-inspired, beauty. And the point of Christian ascetical life is also beyond looking and feeling good. We also have a competition, struggle, combat, race. For Greek pagans, their public games could be life-threatening. And so is our struggle - life itself is life-threatening. In fact, statistically speaking, anyone who has ever lived has died, so the odds are not in our favor.
Yet, we practice our asceticism because our struggle is not win in life, but rather to win the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 11:12). Saint Paul calls this struggle "the race," and he exhorts us to run it with perseverance, looking to Jesus only. This race is not a sprint, but a marathon, so we need to be physically and spiritually ready to run it (exercising ascetically) and run it strategically, not wasting too much energy on one part of the race, only to be fatigued and not finish.
And just like any racer, we need to keep our eyes on the goal - Jesus Christ and His promised Kingdom. This means that our reward is prepared for us in the eternal life, not in this temporary life.
Let us run the race with perseverance, brothers and sisters!
Yours in the Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest