To the rescue, again

The calendar pages turn, Lent unfolds — and once again, God comes to the rescue of our humanity. That is what we remember, ponder, and celebrate each year in the great Easter Triduum: the astonishing good news that the Creator of the universe entered his creation, in the person of his son, in order to redirect the story back to its proper end, which is eternal life within the light and love of the Blessed Trinity. That’s a rescue story for the ages.

It is also, as Paul put it to those rowdy Corinthians, “a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1.23). Other New Testament texts refer to the “scandal” of the Cross. But what kind of “scandal” is this?

It is not a scandal against reason; it is a scandal beyond reason. Creation, Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, displays the “exaggerated infinity of God’s love.” The love of God, that mysterious exchange within the life of the Trinity in which the gift eternally enhances both the giver and the receiver, bursts the bounds of the inner-trinitarian life and there is — Creation. Yet if the exaggeration of the divine love is manifest in the Creation, how much more is it manifest in the Incarnation and the Redemption?

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is, Benedict XVI constantly reminds us, “the God with a human face.” As the Pope put it last September in Germany, in the first section of the Creed we confess that the world began, not accidentally, but purposefully: a divine purpose is at work in the created order. But then, Benedict teaches, we get more: “God does not leave us groping in the dark.” He comes looking for us in history. The creative reason and love from which everything proceeds “has a face:” the face of goodness, the face of love.

For Christians, the “face of God” is the Holy Face of Christ. On Good Friday, we see the exaggerated love of God at its most scandalous: for the Holy Face is struck, spat upon, lacerated, crowned with thorns. Here is a scandal beyond reason: what the world sees as the quintessence of irrational brutality, the eyes of faith see as a love that has burst the bounds of our reason to show us the deeper “reason” of God, which is the reason of infinite love.

We live in a season of irrationality, as the pictures in our newspapers regularly remind us. The irrationality of the early twenty-first century is not only the irrationality of murder-in-the-name-of-God, however; it is also the irrationality of the radical skeptic, who insists that human beings can never know the truth of anything with surety. Corrosive skepticism is eating away at the cultural vitals of Europe, the continent that gave the world the very idea of reason; corrosive skepticism is not unknown in America, which is Europe transplanted. At this moment in history, confronted on the one side by irrational faith and on the other by a profound loss of faith in reason, the Church, Benedict XVI insists, must “make more room for rationality.”

The rationality the Church proclaims is not, however, identical to the rationality of the scientists. It is a more ample rationality, a bigger reason. For the reason to which Christianity gives witness is the reason that is the Logos, the Word of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. And the second person of the Trinity, incarnate, displays for us the human face of God, the face of infinitely exaggerated love.

The reason of God, the Logos through whom all things were made, calls us beyond reason to love. Walking the Way of the Cross, Jesus reaches the end of the road of the world’s rationality — and becomes, thereby, a stumbling block and a folly. But a more ample “reason” is at work here: the logic of love, carried out to infinity. That is what bursts the bounds of the tomb on Easter morning. The tomb is empty. The world has been suffused with the power of divine love, which is the most living thing there 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.