A theological time-bomb

Every year at Christmas time, the Pope meets with the senior officials of the Roman Curia for a review of the year just past and a look into the year ahead; wags would say it’s the closest thing the Vatican gets to an office Christmas party. Three days before Christmas, 1987, Pope John Paul II surprised more than a few of those present by skipping the year-in-review and proposed a different way of looking at the Church than Roman ears are accustomed to hearing.

The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had suggested that four biblical images of the Church, based on four great New Testament figures, shape and reshape the Church in every age. The Church of evangelization is formed in the image of Paul, apostle to the gentiles. The Church of contemplative prayer is formed in the image of the apostle John, who rested his head on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper. The Church of office and jurisdiction is formed in the image of Peter, to whom the Lord consigned the keys of the Kingdom. And then there is the Church of discipleship, formed in the image of Mary, whose “be it done unto me according to your word” was, in a sense, the very beginning of Christian discipleship.

Speaking to representatives of the “Petrine Church,” who not infrequently think themselves the center of the Catholic world, John Paul suggested that the “Marian profile” in the Church is the most fundamental of Christian realities. Mary, the Pope said, was the first disciple, whose “yes” made possible the incarnation of God’s son. The incarnation was “extended” in history through the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ. Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven prefigures the glorification of all those who will be saved. Thus, John Paul taught, Mary provides a “profile” of what the Church is, of how the people of the Church should live, and of what that redeemed people’s destiny is.

The Pope then gave the screw another gentle twist. The “Marian profile” in the Church,  the Pope said, is even “more…fundamental” than the “Petrine profile.” The two cannot be divided. But the Church formed in the image of Mary — the Church of disciples — preceded and made possible the Church formed in the image of Peter — the Church embodied by the distinguished churchmen present at the Pope’s address. Indeed, the “Marian Church” made sense out of the “Petrine Church,” for, as the Pope insisted, office and jurisdiction in the Church exist only “to form the Church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary.” The Church formed in Peter’s image and the Church formed in Mary’s image complement each other. But, the Pope insisted, “the Marian profile is…pre-eminent,” and is certainly richer in meaning for every Christian’s vocation.

The message was unmistakable. Authority in the Church serves discipleship. The power of the keys serves sanctity. Here was a richly textured theology of Mary chipping away at some old-fashioned assumptions about the centrality of the Church-as-institution — and at the very epicenter of institutional Catholicism.

The Pope concluded by quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar approvingly: “A contemporary theologian has well commented: ‘Mary is “Queen of the Apostles” without any pretensions to apostolic power; she has other and greater powers’.”

Like John Paul’s theology of the body, John Paul’s Mariology — his theology of Mary — is a theological explosive with a long fuse. When it detonates in the Church at some point in the next few decades, the results will be, quite possibly, revolutionary. How many of today’s seemingly endless quarrels — over who’s-in-charge, over the role of women in the Church, over the relationship between the ordained priesthood and the priestly gifts of all the baptized — would be put on a much different footing if the Church plumbed the depths of its “Marian profile” as described by John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar? And might such a reflection, carried out with other Christian communities, transform Mary from ecumenical roadblock to ecumenical “key,” with both Protestants and Orthodox?

Points to ponder this during this Marian month of May, as we reflect on Mary, first of disciples and Mother of the Church.

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.