A Bit to Read
If all may go according to plan, the Olympic Torch will come through Chilliwack on its way to Vancouver next Sunday, February 7. Its passing through our town, of course, helps to heighten local Olympic fever and direct Chilliwackian attention to the Games set to open in Vancouver on February 12. Though I gather snow lines are currently a bit of a worry, the Games promise to be exciting as Canadians join together to hope for a bucket of gold for our land. No doubt many of us will follow the Games with great interest.
We’re not meant to ride through life without thinking, so please indulge a question or two about these Olympics. Where do the Games come from, and what’s their purpose? For that matter, what’s the significance of the Olympic Torch? And how do the Games have a place in God’s kingdom?
A Bit of History
Back in the late 19th century, a French educationalist names Pierre de Coubertin dreamt of a mankind no longer torn by war and jealousy. The education system of the day, he felt, was failing to train the young people to respect other races and nationalities, and so he sought a better way to achieve a sense of universal brotherhood.
He found the cure in sport. By his conviction, universal competitive sport would promote the harmonious forming of spirit, character and body, which in turn would promote better relations between the nations of earth and ultimately usher in world peace.
To achieve this goal, de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games championed by the Greeks of long ago. These Greeks had played the Games for hundreds of years; the first recorded games were held in 776 BC (some half century before the destruction of Samaria and the exile of the northern tribes), and the tradition was finally abolished by decree of the Christian emperor Theodosius I in 394 AD because he saw the Games to be out of step with the Christian faith. De Coubertin, however, modern man that he was, did not concern himself with what the Christian faith said about universal brotherhood, and so he sought to recommence the Olympic Games. His wish was fulfilled with the first of the modern Games in Athens in 1896. De Coubertin’s vision continues in the well-known symbol of the Games, the five interlocking rings of blue, black, red, yellow and green. The number five represents the world’s five inhabited continents (Africa, America, Asia, Australia and Europe) and the colours represent the individual countries, for there is not a country in the world whose flag does not have at least one of these colours. International unity in national diversity.
The vision behind the Olympic Games has (we would say, predictably) not had its desired effect. Since the New Series began in 1896, the Olympic Games were twice hindered by world wars. Several of the games that were held were marred by dissension and even out-right hostility. The 1972 Munich Games saw the massacre of almost the entire Israeli delegation by Palestinian terrorists. Other games (eg, 1980 and 1984) were boycotted by leading nations who refused for political reasons to send their athletes.
The Olympic Flame
Yet the vision continues. More than three months ago the Olympic Flame was lit at a ceremony in the Temple of Hera at Olympia in Greece. (Hera, we may be interested to know, was the wife of Zeus, the principle god of the Greeks.) Read Ed Willis’ account in the October 22nd edition of the National Post of what would happen at that event:
“Today, at the Temple of Hera and the site of the first Olympic Stadium, a ceremony which is steeped in symbolism will begin the final countdown to the Vancouver Winter Games. It will begin with a torch lighting by the high priestess, followed by her prayer to the god Apollo, followed by an interpretive dance by seven of the lesser priestesses, and will culminate with the passing of the flame to the first torch bearer in the Greek portion of the relay.”
What’s the vision caught in the flame? Jim Richards, the “program director for the torch relay”, words it like this (as quoted in the same paper):
“The message behind the flame is the message behind the Olympic Games. It’s the spiritual element, it’s enlightenment, it’s brotherhood, it’s peace. It’s all the values we see coming out of the Games.”
Central, of course, to the Games is the competition of athletes. Instead of nation engaging nation in military combat, at the Games nation engages nation through its top athletes. Victory is not measured through the death of your enemy, but is measured in your winning the event over your combatant and then celebrated with a handshake and a medal – with your nearest competitor standing beside you to receive the silver. That all seems healthy enough (in multiple senses of the word), and compatriots back home are rightfully proud of the achievements of their athletes.
There is no doubt that there is good value in physical training. A healthy body, well trained and well maintained, can accomplish much. Competition too is a powerful stimulate to doing one’s best, a skill valuable for all of life. The sense of team spirit and working together that comes from team sports also greatly develops skills valuable across the spectrum of life.
Yet the Holy Spirit tells us not to over-emphasise athletics. A fine-tuned body, and even a fine-tuned spirit, is passing; we remain flesh, a passing breath. Though one win a dozen gold medals, one will still eventually die – and then be called before the judgment seat of God. In God’s kingdom sport can never be a goal in itself, but only has a place in so far as it serves to promote the message of Christ’s victory on the cross. Paul puts it this way: “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7,8). And elsewhere: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24,25).
Paul’s word has consequences for us. Many of us will watch some of the events, and we’ll admire the skill these athletes display. Perhaps we’ll even feel a measure of envy, and set as our goal that we or our children will become that good. But instead of pouring our envy and energy into bodily training alone, Scripture would have us pour even more in spiritual training. Here we parents need to model for our children which training we treasure the most, and how much we’ll push ourselves to excel. In short, the Games illustrate for us how hard we need to push ourselves (and our children) as we train ourselves for spiritual excellence in God’s world.
The talk of town is, of course, the Olympics. Though in the coming weeks the world’s focus will be on who wins what, the philosophy behind the Games will equally remain a conversation piece. And here’s where we receive opening to speak of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Games seek world unity – but the victory that ensures that unity has already been achieved through Christ’s triumph on the cross! Conflict and tension and jealousy, after all, are the bitter fruits of the fall into sin, and the fruit of conflict and tension and jealousy in turn is nothing else than war and hatred and death. The recipe to taking away conflict and tension and hatred and war is not pitting one’s best athlete against another’s; that will do no more than putting a band-aid over the sore. To take away conflict and strife one needs to overcome its cause, and that’s sin. Through Christ’s work on the cross sinners are reconciled to God, and as children-of-God-together sinners can stand shoulder to shoulder in peace, working together for the glory of the King of kings. It is this good news that brings about peace on earth, also in our day. By placing the Olympics on our path, the Lord God gives us opportunity to speak with our fellow citizens of the true peace Jesus Christ has brought and continues to bring to Planet Earth.
Is there place for those who delight in the peace the Saviour obtained on the cross to get caught up in the Olympic spirit? Given the purpose of the Games, it clearly ought not to be so. The Games pursue a noble goal –world unity and peace– but neglect the cause of world division and neglect too the victory that Christ has won on the cross. Since the Games pursue a goal without taking God into account, the Games are actually idolatry – as the involvement of the priestess at the lighting of the flame so vividly illustrates. The Christian cannot appreciate the idolatry of the Games.
That’s not to say that I don’t share the hope that Canada will come away from the Games with a bucket of gold; I too am patriotic. I’m also aware that many wins will boost our national confidence, which in turn has positive spin-offs in the land. But these wins will not and cannot solve Canada’s problems, be they economic, political, social, etc. The land needs the gospel. So my heart will not be in the Games. My heart and my focus will remain in the Word, and in the work of Jesus Christ my Lord. And in that Word I’ll continue to train myself and my family.
January 29, 2010