Jesus is not optional

Sometimes I decide what I’m going to write about. And sometimes God does.

I just came back from the FOCUS conference in Phoenix. It was awesome, incidentally, and I highly recommend that you all look into it for next year. Yes, it is sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. And yes, there are a lot of college kids there. But there is also a marvelous adult track, with wonderful speakers and fabulous activities. 

But I digress. The very first speaker was Father Mike Schmitz, and the theme of his talk was that Jesus is not “optional.” It was a wonderful talk and gave me so much spiritual food for thought.

I wrote “Jesus is not optional” in my little column ideas list.

Then I came home and went to a movie. The movie, A Hidden Life, was about Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis in 1943. Also highly recommended. In the movie, there is a scene where Franz is talking to a man who paints frescos in the church. He’s talking about how he paints Jesus as nice, unthreatening. He says he does it because “[W]e create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.”

Similar message strikes me twice? That’s my message from God. And it’s my column.

So, let’s talk about Jesus.

I don’t think, in our culture, you’ll find a lot of people who openly regard Him negatively. Even the Doobie Brothers said that “Jesus is Just Alright.” (Which, in the parlance of the day, meant that He is “cool.”) It’s kind of a form of weak virtue signaling to speak highly — but vaguely — of Him. Of course, the “Jesus” to whom people frequently refer bears little if any resemblance to the actual Jesus who walked the earth — the one whose life and message are recorded in Scripture.  No, He is mild and pleasant and somewhat feminized, and He just wants everybody to get along.

I actually read a Facebook post the other day (I don’t remember the context) in which a woman was lecturing someone about how Jesus’ message was all about UNITY and EQUALITY. Apparently, she never got to the part about how a father will be divided against his sons, and a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law.

We all see “outsiders” shape-shifting Jesus to fit their own agendas. But what about those of us who call ourselves Christian — followers of Christ? Where does Jesus fit into our lives?

I maintain that a vast majority of “Christians” probably fall more into the “admirer” category than the “follower.” We speak of Him, occasionally, but always in reverent tones. We put his picture in a corner of the house somewhere. Perhaps we even quote Him when his words bolster our argument.

But is that what He asks of us? Did He say “Join my church, and give me lip service every once in a while”? Did He say “As long as you’re a basically good person, you really don’t need to pay too much attention to me”?

No. He said “Follow me.” Actually, technically, it was “deny yourself, take up your Cross and follow me.” He invited us to lose our lives for His sake. He commanded us to love Him with our whole heart and soul.

What does it look like to follow Him? It looks like St. Teresa of Calcutta, who never worried about funding her ministries, but prayed for an hour every day and the funds arrived when they were needed. It looks like St. John Paul II, who risked his life pursuing the priesthood in an underground seminary in defiance of the Nazis. It looks like Bl. Franz Jagerstatter, who refused to swear allegiance to the murderous dictator Hitler, even when it led to his execution.

It also means you and I strive to put Him first in our everyday lives. It means we read his word and ponder what He is telling us through it. It means we work to live lives of service instead of merely comfort. It means we see his image and likeness in every person we encounter. It means we stand up for his truth in our own little ways, even when doing so will cost us popularity or business or “likes.”

But that can be unpleasant at best, and can cost us our lives at worst. Why do we have to go through it all? Are these just the hoops we are supposed to jump through so we can get to Heaven?

No. We bother not because He needs us, but because we need Him. We need Him at the center of our lives. We need him because, as Father Mike said in his talk, we are not “fine” without him. We are desperate, in need of a savior, to save us in this life and in the next.

Also, lest you think I am preaching at you from some high spiritual perch where I have attained this incredible one-ness with him, think again. I’m just the girl who heard a reminder twice in a week and had to take a good hard look at her own life.

Let’s all make a commitment to take Him out of the corner in 2020. Let’s put Him first. Let’s make sure his voice is the first one we seek in the morning, and that his word informs our every decision. Let’s ask Him to shine his love through us. Let’s recommit to his sacraments.

And then we can show the world who He really is.

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.