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How the Church Fathers Found God in the Olympics

How the Church Fathers Found God in the Olympics Shawn Carpenter

Shawn Carpenter

Brantly Millegan - published on 02/04/14

Our 2,000 year old tradition of sports analogies.

The 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi Russia begin in just two days, and with them come a prime opportunity for Christians to engage in another ancient tradition: mining the great sporting event for analogies to teach the faith.

I’m generally no fan of priests trying too hard to be hip and “with it” – it almost always backfires – but examples of effectively preaching from the Olympics come from none other than the ever venerable early Church fathers.

While the modern Olympic games have their roots in the 19th century, they were a revival of the tradition from ancient Greece, a tradition still in practice in the first few centuries of the Church. And taking their cues from St. Paul’s own sports analogies in Scripture, the early Christians used the opportunity to inspire people in their spiritual lives.

St. John Cassian spoke of the “Olympic struggle against our vices,” saying that “our first trial in the Olympic games [is] to extinguish the desires of the palate and the belly by the longing for perfection.” (Institutes, V, 13, 14) Theodotus compared the preparation for the spiritual life we receive from Scripture to an Olympian preparing for his event. (Excerpts, XXVIII)

Tertullian took a different angle, showing how an ascetic Christian life differed from that of the Olympians. “Let Olympic cestus-players and boxers cram themselves [with food] to satiety,” he wrote in a work on fasting. “To them bodily ambition is suitable to whom bodily strength is necessary…” He continued:

“But ours are different muscles and different sinews, just as our contests are different; we whose wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the world's power, against the spiritualities of malice. Against these it is not by robustness of flesh and blood, but of faith and spirit, that it behooves us to make our antagonistic stand.”

He finished with this quip: “On the other hand, an overfed Christian will be more necessary to bears and lions, perchance, than to God; only that, even to encounter beasts, it will be his duty to practise emaciation.” (On Fasting, 17)

But the Church father who seems to have referenced the Olympic games more than any other was the great eastern Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom. The name “Chrysostom” is actually a title of honor meaning “golden mouthed,” as he is remembered as a gifted preacher. Perhaps that explains why he so often chose to explain the faith in reference to a major popular event of his times?

In one example from a homily, he acknowledges that there were many fans of the games in his congregation. “Many of you have often beheld the Olympic games: and not only have beheld but have been zealous partisans and admirers of the combatants, one of this [combatant], one of that.” (Homily 14 on Hebrews, 10) So he uses the games as an analogy to exhort his congregation to train for the spiritual life just as hard as the Olympians train for their sport.

“You know then that both during the days of the contests, and during those nights, all night long the herald thinks of nothing else, has no other anxiety, than that the combatant should not disgrace himself when he goes forth. […]

“If therefore he who is about to strive before men, uses such forethought, much more will it befit us to be continually thoughtful, and careful, since our whole life is a contest. Let every night then be a vigil, and let us be careful that when we go out in the day we do not make ourselves ridiculous.” (Homily 14 on Hebrews, 10)

In another homily in the same series, he points to how much more important the spiritual life is than sports:

“[T]hose [Olympic] contests for prizes are not of the soul nor yet of good morals, but of strength and the body. If then where there is exercise of bodies, much examination is made about character, how much rather here, where the soul is alone the combatant.” (Homily 17 on Hebrews, 8)

Elsewhere, he warns his congregation that they may be getting soft in their faith, a softness that would quickly show itself if they were to be persecuted. He points to how Pentathlon athletes train even in the off-season:

“[W]hen they have no antagonists, [see] how they fill a sack with much sand, and hanging it up try their full strength thereupon? And they that are still younger, practise the fight against their enemies upon the persons of their companions.”

St. John is direct in . “These should you also emulate, and practice the wrestlings of self-denial.” (Homily 33 on Matthew, 6)

The Church fathers built up the Church in times of great hardship, often facing great confusion and persecution. Perhaps we can take a cue from the early Church playbook, and use the virtues of the Olympic games over the next few weeks to point people the higher goods of the spiritual life lived for Jesus Christ.

Brantly Milleganis an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature, Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.

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