Easter is not a question mark

Excavating my desk recently, I found the program notes from a Tallis Scholars concert my wife and I had attended a few months ago. The Tallis Scholars are a marvelous a capella ensemble, but most of their music that night was rather too minimalist for my tastes. In any event, the author of the program notes described Arvo Pärt’s I am the true vine, and its “qualities of stasis and timelessness,” as reminiscent of what “former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as ‘silently waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark’.”

Which put me in mind of an old joke that used to circulate in the editorial offices of First Things. Harvard University’s crest, it seems, used to read Veritas  Christo et Ecclesiae [Truth for Christ and the Church]. Christ and the Church were jettisoned over a hundred years ago; the crest now reads, simply, Veritas. The joke was that the crest’s next iteration would be Veritas? – thus honoring the post-modern canon that there is no “the truth,” only “your truth” and “my truth.”

Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Rivested.

Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Revisited.

During Lent, I’ve been rewatching the magnificent 1981 BBC production of Bridehead Revisited – the best television adaptation of a great novel ever made, in part because of the stunning cast but in larger part because Evelyn Waugh’s book is the screenplay. In the second segment, the protagonist, Charles Ryder, muses on what he had once been taught about Christianity in terms that took me back to that joke, and to Rowan Williams “sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark” while “waiting on the truth:”

“I had no religion [Ryder recalled]…The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’….and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done, would I have been much interested.”

Large parts of the western world seem similarly uninterested today. And the notion that Christianity is mythical rubbish unfit for intelligent adults has been given a new lease on life by the media-driven success of the New Atheists, although their fifteen minutes of fame has just about expired (happy news for anyone familiar with elementary logic). So the real question today is not refuting the blustering Richard Dawkins. The real question is, is the Church “silently waiting on the truth” as in Dr. Williams’s image, shirking its evangelical responsibilities while basking (or freezing, as the case may be) “in the presence of the question mark”?

Lent and Eastertide ought to be occasions for the Church to examine its collective conscience on this point. The grittiness of Lent, and the “intransigent historical claims” without which Easter makes no sense at all, should remind us that Christianity does not rest on myths or “narratives,” but on radically changed human lives whose effect on their times are historical fact. Within two and a half centuries, what began as a ragtag gang of nobodies from the civilizational outback had so transformed the Mediterranean world that the most powerful man in that world, the Roman emperor Constantine, joined the winning side. How did that happen?

It didn’t happen because of better myth-making. It happened because those first Christians met a young rabbi who promised that, should they believe in him, each of them would become “ a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John 4.14]. Then came what seemed complete catastrophe: his crucifixion. But they met that teacher again as the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and were infused by his Spirit. And after that, they didn’t sit around in the “presence of the question mark; rather, they told the truth of what they had “seen and heard” [cf. 1 John 1.1].

And thereby changed the world.

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.