God’s harsh and dreadful love

The Paschal Triduum this year seemed like a return from exile: Holy Thursday’s Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in church; Good Friday’s Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, in church; Saturday evening’s Easter Vigil, in church – what a blessing. Thanking God, I could only be aware of those for whom the exile continues, whether because of the pandemic or, like my friend Jimmy Lai, because of unjust imprisonment for the cause of Christ and freedom in Hong Kong. May their exile end soon.

In his 2010 Easter message, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the “new Passover” Christians celebrate at Easter – the passing-over of the Lord Jesus from death to a superabundant form of life – replicates in important respects the form of Israel’s Passover, which the Church remembers at the Easter Vigil by reading Exodus 14:15-15:1. Yes, Easter changed everything, in that it revealed in a definitive way what God intended for humanity “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) – and nothing could be the same after that revelation of the power of divine love. Still, Benedict taught, it’s important to remember that “Easter does not work magic. Just as the Israelites found the desert awaiting them on the far side of the Red Sea, so the Church, after the Resurrection, always finds history filled with joy and hope, grief and anguish. And yet this history is changed, it is marked by a new and eternal covenant, it is truly open to the future.”

That is why, the pope concluded, the people of the Church, having met the Risen Lord, can continue their pilgrimage of conversion and mission with confidence and hope. Because of Easter, Christians are the people who know how the world’s story is going to turn out – not in cosmic entropy, but in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb who was slain, as the Church is reminded as it reads the Book of Revelation during Eastertide. Knowing that, the Church carries the life-transforming message of the Risen Lord into the future, singing (as Pope Benedict put it), “the song that is ever ancient and yet ever new: ‘Let us sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph!’”

It will be well to keep that Easter confidence and hope in mind if, as may be happening, Catholicism is entering a new “Humanae Vitae moment” – a moment in which public dissent from authoritative teaching about ancient and settled Catholic truth tears new wounds in the Mystical Body of Christ. 

This is 2021, not 1968, and there are differences between this Catholic moment and that one. In 1968, dissenting bishops and theologians said, more or less openly, that Paul VI got it wrong theologically in affirming the Church’s ethic of human love: that the natural rhythms of biology are the morally appropriate way to regulate fertility. In 2021, dissident bishops and theologians are claiming that the re-affirmation of the obvious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions liturgically because those relationships are “intrinsically disordered” (as the Catechism puts it)  – is insensitive, inhospitable, hurtful, coldly abstract. That CDF got it wrong is the subtext of dissent; but dissent was primarily expressed in psychological rather than theological categories, not least by bishops in countries where such “blessings” are performed. 

This is not an improvement.

Pondering the assault on CDF and the now-typical confusions that ensued when various Vatican commentators tried to walk back the papal endorsement of the congregation’s statement, it struck me that “progressive” Catholicism seems to have forgotten Dorothy Day’s claim that divine love is “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” I was also reminded of a passage from a letter that Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Betty Hester in 1955:

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally…. [Thus] there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”

That the journey to Easter always passes through Good Friday is an annual reminder that the divine love burning its way through history is harsh and dreadful as well as compassionate and merciful. Losing our grip on what Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor understood reduces Christianity to sentimentality. That is why all of us, sinners that we are, must pray daily, “Lord, have mercy.”               

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.