Christmas: cure for cynicism and irony

In a sermon broadcast on the BBC on Dec. 25, 1950, Msgr. Ronald Knox observed that “we make a holiday of Christmas only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them.” In my case, the stairs in question led, not to a nursery, but to the children’s bedroom I shared with my brother at 1 Regester Avenue in the Baltimore suburb of Rodgers Forge. And down the stairs we slid, Christmas morning, to discover what had arrived (or, as we later learned, what had been assembled, often with the aid of my grandfather Weigel) the night before. The day that followed was one unmitigated happiness; and from the distance of more than half a century, I still remember the sweet sadness of Christmas night, brought on by the thought that it was now a full year until Christmas came ‘round again.

Msgr. Knox’s call to a recovered Christmas innocence may well ring more truly today than it did when he preached on the BBC the Christmas before I was born. Western culture, back then, had its cynics; but it was not awash in cynicism and irony, as it is today. And those two cultural markers—cynicism and irony—are grave impediments to receiving the Gospel and embracing friendship with the Lord Jesus as the defining commitment of our lives. Postmodernity proposes cynicism and irony as adult attitudes, signs of maturation beyond nursery innocence. The entire Christmas story, however, tells us that that’s not true.

There is neither cynicism nor irony in Mary’s reception of the angel Gabriel and her acceptance of the divine invitation to become the Theotokos, the “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” There was a question; there may have been fear; there certainly was wonder (all three are captured in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s magnificent painting, The Annunciation, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art).  But there was neither the cynic’s response (“Are you kidding me?) nor the ironist’s (“What did I do to deserve this?”).

There was neither cynicism or irony in the response of the shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” in the fields around Bethlehem. Here, too, there was innocent wonder, and an implicit act of faith in the divine purposes, however mysterious: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2: 8, 15).

One might have expected cynicism and irony from the Magi, the “sages” from the East. They were, after all, intellectuals; cynicism and irony are trademarks of full-up membership in the academic guild. Perhaps the Magi were untenured. Still, however learned they may have been, we find in them no soured world-weariness, no passion for demythologizing, no relativism, no self-absorption. Rather, the Magi, the first gentiles to acknowledge what Father Edward Oakes described as “infinity dwindled to infancy” seek, find, and pay homage—ignoring, along the way, the deceits of that arch-cynic and ironist, Herod the Great.

And there seems to have been neither cynicism nor irony in St. Joseph, too often the forgotten figure in the Christmas tableau. We may imagine him a virile, fatherly man, a skilled tradesman, a husband in love with the wife of his heart. He, too, responded with deep faith to instructions that might well cause others to lapse into irony, if not downright cynicism: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1.20-21); “”Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him” (Matt 2:13).

To “return to the nursery” at Christmas is not infantile. To “return to the nursery” is to re-experience the wonder of God in his search for us, in history.

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.