Books for Christmas

Take a stand against the electronification of everything — give (real) books this Christmas. Some recommendations:

Paul: A Biography, by N.T. Wright (HarperOne): Dr. Wright’s remarkable ability to explicate the New Testament gives familiar passages new depths of meaning. His reconstruction of what Saul of Tarsus experienced on the Damascus road is deeply moving, even thrilling. And in this season of Catholic anger and grief, Wright’s analysis of Paul’s pastoral struggles is a helpful reminder that the Church has always been something of a mess.

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, by John W. O’Malley, SJ (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press): Father O’Malley completes his conciliar trilogy (which includes works on Trent and Vatican II) with a nicely rendered account of Vatican I that’s fair to all those involved in some serious ecclesiastical elbow-throwing. Now that ultramontanism — an excessively Petrocentric concept of the Church — has migrated from the starboard to the port side of the Barque of Peter, Vatican I is also useful in explaining why that 19th-century council’s work had to be completed by Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, by Thomas G. Guarino (Eerdmans): As the Church continues to debate the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, Father Guarino’s carefully crafted argument that Vatican II was a council of development, not rupture, is a much-needed antidote to some current oversimplifications.  It’s the perfect gift for both the Tradinista millennial who has no idea why Vatican II was necessary and for those who believe the Catholic Church does “paradigm shifts.”

The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula, edited by Mary Eberstadt (Emmaus Road): Want a window into why the New Evangelization has engaged hundreds of young professionals in the nation’s capital over the past decade or so? Mrs. Eberstadt’s conversations with the leader of that effort, recorded in the months before his death, introduce those who never met Father Arne to a model priest and spiritual director — and remind those who knew and loved him how privileged we were to enjoy his company and to glimpse sanctity and intelligence working in tandem.

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, by Elizabeth Lev (Sophia Institute Press): You’ve never really seen a painting or a sculpture until you’ve “seen” it through the discerning eye of Elizabeth Lev, a master teacher and guide. In our confused culture, beauty just might create new pathways to truth and goodness; Professor Lev’s story of how something like that happened 500 years ago is thus evangelically challenging and pastorally suggestive for missionary disciples today.

In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking): At a moment in which American public officials too often act like petulant toddlers, it’s good to remember that character counts in politics and that insight, courage, and selflessness can rally the confused, the cowardly, and the self-centered to act for the common good. That was Washington’s great accomplishment in the months leading up to the decisive American victory at Yorktown in October 1781: By force of character, he held together a tottering revolution even as he displayed a shrewd understanding of how seapower shapes history.

Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns Since 1800 – The Flags of the Papal States and Today’s Vatican, by William M. Becker (North American Vexillogical Association): I’ve been a flag buff since childhood. But until a few months ago, I hadn’t known there was a discipline called “Vexillology” (the study of flags), or that it had an association. I’m glad I found out, as Father Becker’s beautifully illustrated book is full of wonderful flags (like the naval ensign flying on a papal warship), even as it offers a brief course in modern Vatican history. Get it from the association by going to the “Shop” tab at the Web site: nava.org.

Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends, by Alexander McCall Smith: This series of charming novels features a winsome Pimlico terrier named Freddie de la Haye and a cast of human characters whose foibles McCall Smith treats with humor and deep sympathy. It’s the literary equivalent of comfort food. And as this year has taught us, we all need that from time to time.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.