August 12, 2004
There is always something exciting about going home. And this week as more than 10,000 athletes bring the summer Olympics back home to Greece, the eyes of the world are set with anxious anticipation. At the same time that the people of Israel were listening to the thundering prophecies of Amos denouncing those who plundered the poor, the citizens of Greece were joining their voices to cheer the athletes of the first Olympics.
The Greeks were keen on athletic competition. It developed prowess and readied men for war. It fostered
arētē, or “virtue,” “excellence,” “valor,” an essential building block of character. Of course, not every athlete was completely virtuous--then and now. In 67AD, the Roman Emperor Nero took part in the Olympics. No one was surprised when he won! At least he coveted the appearance of
arētē. By the end of the fourth century, the games had fallen into such dishonor that the Emperor Theodosius ended them.
This week the Olympics go back to Athens for the first time since they were revived in 1896. In the beginning, there had been only one race, but over the centuries other events were added. Today men and women are competing in 28 sports and 37 disciplines, and the media will bring us right up front with the view from our living rooms.
Our day is enthralled with sports. Our children from a very young age are injected with this enthusiasm. And not without good reason. Sports do more than build the body. They develop perseverance and sportsmanship. They teach control and mastery over the body. They train individuals to be part of a team. Not one of these values is outdated. How much better society would be if commitment came before comfort, if virtue were always held in high regard. Recognizing the great value of sports to foster the development of the person and to serve as an instrument of peace and brotherhood among peoples, the Vatican has just established a new office dedicated to “Church and Sport.” Not without the blessing of the Holy Father, himself a once avid skier, hiker and swimmer.
In the ancient world, so popular were the games and their goal that not only were the Olympics held in the peaceful valley in the Peloponnesus, but the Pythian games were likewise held every four years at Delphi and every two years there were games at Nemea and the Isthmian near Corinth games. Just one year before Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, games had been staged no more than 8 miles from where his readers lived. The sounds and sights of the stadium were still fresh in their minds. Paul wisely conjures up the games they enjoyed so well.
The Corinthians wanted the easy way. They wanted faith and knowledge, but not the struggle against evil in themselves. They wanted the appearance of holiness, but not the substance of true commitment to the values of the gospel and the virtues of the Christian life. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say “yes” privately to the Lord and then, when he calls for commitment to basic human values, such as caring for the poor and respecting all human life, publicly say “no” to avoid being unpopular.
Paul gets to the heart of the matter. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we, an imperishable one.” (1 Cor 9: 25 ) We Christians are like athletes. We need to exercise self-control. Here is one of the least talked about aspects of Christian living. We cannot satisfy every desire of our heart or every appetite of our body. Self-indulgence spawns fornication, feuds, envy, drunkenness, disagreements and gross indecency. That’s what Paul says when he writes to the Galatians. (Gal 5:19-20) Christian asceticism is not reserved for hair-shirt saints. It is for all of us who follow Jesus. He denied himself, sacrificed himself for our sake. So must we for others.
Paul uses the Greek word
egkrateia. As for the athlete, so for the Christian, there must be the discipline of the body along with the ordering of the appetites and desires to a goal. But for the Christian, there is much more. The word comes from the Greeks; but Paul’s idea of self-mastery is thoroughly biblical and most consoling to us lesser individuals who struggle each day.
For the Greeks, self-mastery was something you achieved, something you accomplish by the sheer force of your will and the strength of your body. Not so for the Christian. Paul is very clear on this. Self-mastery is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Asceticism is not an extra; it is inherent in all we do. In some ways, it becomes clearer and easier when we undertake some penitential practices such as fasting or abstaining from legitimate pleasures. But whether we choose to discipline ourselves or not, the hardships and struggles of life will challenge us to deny ourselves to choose the right and the just and the chaste. What we cannot do on our own, the Spirit of God poured out in our hearts enables us to do.
At the end of the Olympic games, the young athlete stood waiting in the sun, his body glistening with sweat. His face shone with a smile not simply for the coveted wreath that he would receive, but for the honor of his people and the real prize, security for life. His wreath of laurel leaves quickly faded. His prize of earthly security soon ended. Otherwise for us. Each time the Spirit leads us to deny our bodies, our appetites, our selfish wills and we reach the goal Christ sets for us, there is always a deep sense of joy. Our crown does not perish. Our prize does not fail. When we finish the race, we come to enjoy in its fullness the life of God we now possess.