1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22b-27
At the recent Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps added drama and excitement to the games by winning eight gold medals with stunning performances in the swimming pool. He and other Olympians are currently on a three week whirlwind tour which includes appearances at Walt Disney World, Buckingham Palace, and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. While at the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, commodity traders went berserk as they greeted Phelps and his teammates with a hero’s welcome.
Like our culture, the world in St. Paul’s time was immersed in the thrill of athletic competition. The first Olympics began in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece. We know from archeological evidence and historical accounts that participation in the ancient games was considered to be a great honor. Not only would Olympic athletes be revered at the closing ceremonies of the games, but they would be treated as heroes by their city-states.
Paul uses images of athletic competition to illustrate and explain the nature of the Christian life. The Greek word for a victor in the games is agnoistes, from the root word agon, as in our English word agony. The spirit of the ancient Olympic games was not just about drama and entertainment; they displayed the struggle and labor to overcome the limitation of our human nature.
In today’s first reading from I Corinthians, Paul encourages Christians to engage their spiritual life with the same regiment and discipline of athletes preparing for the games. "Run so as to win.
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it."
Christianity is not a spectator sport. Paul prods religious couch potatoes to get up from their comfortable sacred lounge chairs and pursue the values of the Gospel with diligence and discipline. The athlete knows during training that toil and struggle will doubtlessly be encountered. But they do not let the agon, or agony, dissuade them from devotion to their cause.
The cause, as Jesus explains in the Gospel, is not to change other people’s behavior or perspective, but to remove all the obstacles which prevent us from perceiving the Kingdom of Heaven within. Through disciplines such as meditation as works of social justice, we can move beyond the ego’s fallacious sense of being an isolated separate self. Then we will discover what Paul advocates: the glorious, imperishable crown of being a child of God.
Fr. Joe Mitchell, CP is the director of the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center in Louisville, KY
See the website: earthandspiritcenter.org