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How the Church Fathers Found God in the Olympics

Shawn Carpenter

Brantly Millegan - published on 02/04/14 - updated on 06/07/17

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?

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