China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Aug

The Olympic flame and the fire of the Holy Spirit

The Olympic Torch has been prominent in the news over the past few months. The Chinese news media referred to it as the Holy Torch (聖火炬) and reported the Holy Flame (聖火) as it travelled from Greece to Beijing. They could have called it a solemn flame, or a respectable flame, or an inspiring flame, but instead they consistently used the adjective, holy.

People certainly got enthused about that Olympic flame, as we saw on May 2 when 150,000 people lined the streets of Hong Kong to catch a glimpse of it as it was carried through town. Both Chinese and foreigners took photos of themselves near the Olympic Torch. Since people like to associate themselves with a symbol of success, someone sold fake copies of the torch. People only counterfeit things of value.

Sports fans outnumber music lovers

Music also appeals to people of every nation. For the first time ever, a Chinese orchestra performed at the Vatican on May 7. After hearing performances of works by Mozart, Pope Benedict said, “Music, and art in general, can serve as a privileged instrument for encounter and reciprocal knowledge and esteem between different populations and cultures.”

The pope also called the Olympics “an event of great importance for the entire human family.” At their best, music and sports can overcome barriers between nations and delight the whole world. It is better for young adults to compete on an athletic field than on a battlefield.

That was the inspiration for hosting the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, after a lapse of 1,503 years. Unfortunately, the Olympics were cancelled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 as the games became collateral damage of two world wars.

Nobody bets money on symphony performances. People are more excited about the Olympics. Today, as in ancient times, there is always an element of chance about competition. “The race does not go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …all are subject to time and mischance” (Eccl. 8:11). All the training and all the sports psychology in the world cannot guarantee success. Upset victories and accidental losses have marked every Olympics, ancient and modern. If the winners were totally predictable, who would pay for a good seat?

The flame of the Holy Spirit

To a minority of the human race, the coming of the Holy Spirit is even bigger news than the arrival of the Olympic Torch. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, when the apostles received courage from the Holy Spirit, as symbolised by tongues of fire. Then they emerged from several weeks of hiding and publicly proclaimed the Good News.

In 1 Cor. 9:24-27, St. Paul compares athletes racing for a crown of leaves – a wreath that withers – with our racing for the crown of eternal life. Succeeding as a Christian is more important than winning a gold medal in sports. In contrast to the “I win, you lose” logic of sport, heaven has enough crowns and medals for everyone.

How many parents encourage their children to attend church as hard as they push them to become active in sports? In one parish in Hong Kong last September, two families in the first communion programme decided not to enroll their children in any sports activity on Sunday morning in order to avoid a conflict with religious education classes. This shows the priorities of the parents.

Human division and unity

If Pentecost was the answer, then what was the problem? As recorded in Acts 2, pilgrims from a long list of nations came to Jerusalem for an annual Hebrew holy day. On the first Christian Pentecost, 5,000 people were united in hearing, understanding and believing the Good News.

In contrast, Gen. 11 narrates the tragedy of the Tower of Babel. An arrogant people became divided by language differences and then they went their separate ways. We have all experienced how much frustration, confusion, even suspicion and prejudice a language barrier can cause.

In contrast, the preface for Pentecost says, “Today we celebrate the great beginning of your Church when the Holy Spirit made known to all peoples the one true God and created from many human languages one voice to profess one faith.” There is a tension between community and empire. The problem is division and conflict among nations.

One partial solution is international ceremonies like the Olympics. Yet there is a risk of excessive nationalism, when maximising a nation’s number of gold, silver and bronze medals becomes the only objective.

A deeper solution is to gather the nations into the peace of God’s kingdom. That outreach, that mission, began at Pentecost. Mission is as old as the Church, which is missionary by its very nature.

Over the centuries, churches have admittedly been compromised by nationalism and even by racism. Here in Hong Kong, Asia’s World City, where so many different nations are represented, we see how a Church can be united as one family. This is not a perfect diocese, but what we have in common as Catholics almost always outweighs our differences in backgrounds.

Playing by the rules

Jesus linked the gift of the Holy Spirit to the forgiveness of sins. To operate as a team, his disciples first had to be reconciled with one another. The Holy Spirit has an essential role to play in the forgiveness of sins. Then, after Pentecost, the disciples would need all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit to face a divided and hostile world.

The Hebrew term for sin comes from archery. It means, “to miss the mark,” as when someone aims at a target, but misses.

There are different degrees of missing the mark. Maybe the archer aims carefully only to watch the arrow miss. Better luck next time! Maybe he is not paying attention to the target as he pulls an arrow from his quiver, puts it on the bowstring, looks in the general direction of the target, while turning sideways to talk to somebody, and lets the arrow fly.

Of course the archer is to blame for missing. But the worst way to miss the target is to take careful aim at it, then deliberately turn 180 degrees and shoot in the opposite direction. There’s no excuse for that. Sin at its worst is deliberate rebellion.

Cheating has always been the dark side of competition. “An athlete cannot receive the winner’s crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5).

When winning becomes everything, the temptation to win by any means becomes intense. Referees and sports doctors are necessary. They can catch some of the cheats, but not all. Confucius stressed the need for self-control by saying, “The superior person keeps watch over himself even when alone.” Yet when the team has to win because the whole world is watching, individual self-cultivation faces a stern test.

Anxiety and detachment

Around 300BC, the Daoist sage Zhuangzi (莊子) observed an archery contest: “When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind, or sees two targets – he is out of his mind! His skill has not changed. The prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting – and the need to win drains him of power.” The need to win is counterproductive. Much of sports psychology focusses on reducing anxiety both before and during the contest.

In Catholic spirituality, one way to counter performance anxiety is to practice detachment: putting God first, so that the activities of this world will fall into their proper place.

Detachment does not imply laziness. Detached people still have to strive vigorously, but success or failure is not the only consideration. Detachment says, “Pray as if everything depends upon God, but work as if everything depends upon you.” If victory comes, alleluia! If defeat, then some quiet time in prayer or meditation would be helpful.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Jewish philosopher, urged people to view worldly events sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of what is eternally true. However commercialisation, hyperactive announcers, cheerleaders and bands at sporting events do not promote detachment.

The opposite of detachment is over attachment. The “fan” in “sports fan” was originally spoken in full: “fanatic.” Fans joke: “Winning is not everything, winning is the only thing.”

Some fans become obsessed, almost idolatrous, over their favourite player or team. Idols have feet of clay and even the best team loses occasionally. Fans sometimes riot and smash windows for joy when their team wins. They also run wild in frustration when their team loses. Then the police are not amused. Many stadiums therefore ban alcohol. Sobriety promotes detachment. A detached response to defeat is to sigh, “Better luck next time!”

Pray for a successful Olympics

Readers of China Bridge would do well to pray that the Olympics go smoothly during these weeks. The slogan, “One world, one dream,” is inspirational. Without God’s help, to what extent can human beings overcome divisions and create a harmonious world?

There were some unpleasant incidents earlier this year regarding the Olympic Torch. If the next three or four Olympics, wherever they are held, lead to more name-calling, finger pointing and even boycotts, then there’s a danger we may live to see the end of the Olympic Games.

That would be bad news, a loss for humanity, but whatever happens, we will not outlive the Church, since the Holy Spirit will be with us until the end of the world. That holy flame which was seen on the first Pentecost will continue to burn in the hearts of believers. We have reason for long-term optimism.

As St. Paul told St. Timothy, “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me…” (2 Tim. 4:7-8)