Proclaim the hope of Christ in the desert of contemporary life

More than we realize, landscapes shape the contours of our souls. The plains of eastern Colorado condition us to understand the sheer magnitude of our world, and our own smallness in the sight of God. The mountains of the Front Range engender the same. I can still remember the first time I stood on top of A Basin on a crystal clear day and could see forever.  My heart soared at the pure beauty of what I saw, how I was nothing in comparison to the grandeur and immensity of what was before me. And I gave thanks to the Father realizing he had given me this as gift.

No one understood the power of the landscape to shape our souls more than Willa Cather, the American novelist of the early 20th-century. Cather herself was molded by her experience of America’s Great Plains. “When I strike the open plains, something happens,” she wrote. “I’m home. I breathe differently. That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea—it’s the great passion of my life.”

Cather believed that deserts, especially, have a tremendous potential to shape their inhabitants. “The desert,” said Willa Cather, is “a blinding stretch of yellow, flat as the sea in dead calm, splotched here and there with deep purple shadows.” In Cather’s work, deserts are monotonous and imposing: they seem to defy reason, and overcome hope. For Cather, the desert can drive a man to madness—rendering his soul despairing, his reason blunted and undiscerning.

Pope Benedict XVI, has written a lot about deserts lately.  Last week, as he opened the Year of Faith, the Holy Father said that contemporary culture is experiencing a “spiritual desertification.”  We are living, he said, increasingly in “a void … a life or a world without God.”

The consequences of our spiritual desertification are evident. Reason has too often given way to irrational sentimentality. The soul has abandoned grandeur. Hope is increasingly a distant memory.

Recently, I visited with a person without hope. As we discussed the great perils our nation faces, I stated to him that if we continue on the path of abandoning God, our society and civilization would fall.  He said with a shrug, “I suppose all civilizations and societies fall at some time, let’s just hope it is not during our life time.” In the desert of hopelessness and relativism, the future seems bleak.

And yet, the Holy Father is calling us into the desert of contemporary life. He is inviting us to enter the void we face. In fact, he has called the Year of Faith for that purpose.

“This,” he said last week, “is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics—as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission—but the Gospel and the faith of the Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI believes that the hopelessness and relativism of our day can be overcome by the light of the Gospel, the light of faith. “[I]n the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism.” I believe this too. Jesus Christ is our hope! He is the Living Water, the wellspring of new, eternal and fruitful life. The Holy Father is inviting us to bring this water to the desert—this is the call of the Year of Faith—this is the new evangelization.

To bring Christ to the desert of today’s world, we must know him. We must commit ourselves to studying our faith, and knowing it. All of us need to prayerfully read the Catechism of the Catholic Church to more deeply know our faith. We must also know Christ through our prayer—our regular and frequent attendance at Mass and eucharistic adoration, the regular celebration of confession, and our meditation on sacred Scripture. To live the Year of Faith, we must know the content of our faith.

But knowing our faith is not enough. To proclaim it effectively, we must proclaim it with love. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our hearts must burn within us. Christ is the Living Water and the desert thirsts. We must bring Christ in love—through our charity he is made present. If we proclaim Christ without charity, we have not proclaimed him. If we are charitable without Christ, we have not loved.

The spiritual desert of today’s world has shaped a people who are without hope, or the assurance of truth. Christ is our hope! He is our truth! In the Year of Faith we are called to bring Christ to the desert.  Let us know him, abide in him and proclaim him with all that is necessary—the Gospel.

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.