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I enjoy the Olympics – even though I’m useless at sport

July 30, 2012

I’m useless at sport. Ball games are not my forte for several reasons: I can’t catch, I can’t throw, I can’t run; I have no co-ordination, I am frightened of being hit by hard, flying objects. As a teenager I was the twelfth member of the school cricket team – being the official scorer was the limit of my cricketing skills. I remember with horror when our eleventh man didn’t turn up, and I was suddenly, appallingly, forced to get padded up and save the School’s honour. The whole nightmare played out in traumatizing slow motion: and so it came to pass – I was out first ball for a duck.

Yet through my career, as I began to have people working for me, I noticed that often it is the individuals who enjoy taking part in sport or who passionately pursue other interests who tend to have a healthy attitude to life and work. Perhaps it is something to do with their commitment, their joy of being part of a team.

Pope Benedict touched on this when he recently described physical activity as “a training ground for healthy competition and physical movement, a school of formation in the human and spiritual values, a privileged means for personal growth and contact with society”.[1]


Archbishop Bernard has written to all his clergy this week to remind us that this Sunday is being celebrated throughout the country as a “DAY FOR LIFE”, and he quoted Saint Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “Use your body for the glory of God”[2]

Here’s the Catholic trivia bit: Did you know that the Catholic Church played a significant role in ensuring that the modern Olympic movement didn’t fizzle out? In 1908, during an economic downturn, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, asked for the Pope’s help in keeping the new Olympic Movement from failing due to lack of interest. Pope Pius could see that sport would appeal to young people, bringing them together within a framework of rules, and teaching them respect for their opponents. This may sound odd to us today, but only one hundred years ago, less than one per cent of the population took part in any sporting activity. Sport was used only as a form of military training or something for the upper classes to do. Indeed, when the Pope found that people were very sceptical about the health benefits of sport, he told one of his cardinals: “All right, if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercise in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it”.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, the fact that we are made in the image of God means that we yearn to be part of a community, part of a team, to have fun together. The Olympics is an example of that yearning being played out through sports on a world scale – highly motivated people from all over the world training hard, delighted to be part of their national teams, enjoying meeting their counterparts from other countries. It’s a joy. And if most of us can’t be Olympic athletes, we can at least still take part in the celebrations.

I mean, did you see The Queen parachuting in to the Olympic Stadium with James Bond?

What an example! Even at her age, she was willing to have a bit of fun and have a go.

And so today in this Archdiocese we are celebrating a ‘Day for Life’ to remind ourselves of God’s extraordinary gift to us of the human body.  For the next couple of weeks we will be witnesses to what individuals can achieve with their bodies in the Olympic and Paralympic games.

But we have to be careful that we don’t find ourselves worshipping the human body or misusing our bodies. That’s what St Paul meant by using our bodies for the glory of God – so during our gathering this morning we need to pause from all the razzmatazz of the Games to thank God for His marvelous creation, and the sheer joy that can come from true friendship and sportsmanship.

As Catholics we should make it our business to help each and every person be able to achieve their full potential in whatever way they express their lives. And as Catholics we also need to show respect for the dignity of our bodies in every moment of its existence, from conception to natural death.

In today’s readings we find these themes of life, and life being lived to the full through God’s gifts. You will probably have heard before of the explanation of the Feeding of the 5,000 as Jesus providing us with what we need to sustain life, that is food. And not only that, he is pointing the way towards eternal life through spiritual food, and the way that God feeds not only our bodies, but also our souls through the Eucharist.

Now here’s an aspect of today’s readings that you may not have realised: last week we heard how Jesus and His disciples wanted to get away to a peaceful place for a while, but when they got there, a crowd was already waiting, eager for more teaching from Jesus.

So what was it about Jesus that made people think He was something special?

There is a clue for us to be found in the first reading, from the history section of the bible – the Book of Kings. The very short reading describes how the Prophet Elisha fed 100 men with 20 barley loaves. Here’s the interesting thing: Elisha fed them during a famine. Even though people were starving, the people showed their respect for the man they recognized as being holy, the Prophet Elisha, by giving him 20 barley loaves as a “first fruits sacrificial offering”. These ‘first fruits” were part of a very ancient tradition of the people offering up to God some of the first fruits that had been grown – in thanks to God for the harvest. Elisha, during a famine, could easily have kept the food he was given for himself, but he didn’t. Instead he performed an astonishing miracle. He blessed the offerings and multiplied them, and gave them back to the people, enough to feed one hundred men.

Now, do you remember how people used to ask who this wonder-worker and preacher called Jesus was? Jesus asked his disciples,

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”[3]

The Prophet Elisha was revered in Jesus’ time as a famous national hero, a spiritual leader who had had remarkable powers to perform miracles. We can now see that Elisha’s life  “prefigured” Jesus – meaning that his life follows a pattern that predicts what Jesus will be like and confirms Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah over 800 years later. Never in human history has the birth, life and death of a man ever been so accurately and completely predicted as was the coming of Jesus.

Through His feeding of the 5,000 Jesus is doing something truly astonishing. He is saying through His actions, “You’ve had prophets in Israel before, but you ain’t seen nothing yet!”  He validates Elisha’s ministry, Elisha’s life of prophecy, showing Elisha’s very life to have been a prophecy of His own coming.

Jesus didn’t just feed 100 men with 20 barley loaves like Elisha, He did even better – he fed 5,000 men, (which including their families would probably be nearer to 20,000 people); And he did it with less food – just 3 barley loaves and two fishes. Do you see, not only did He feed a crowd 200 times bigger, he did it with LESS food AND had 12 basketsful left over. This was a stupendous, mindboggling, astonishing miracle. Do you get the significance? The crowd would have got the message immediately. Here is something greater than Elisha returning: here is a man – they would have said – far, far greater than one of our greatest prophets, feeding us in the wilderness (like God did when Moses was in charge), and feeding us a balanced diet, not just bread but also fish.

And during the mass we see a similar pattern of events which lead to a miracle happening in front of us. Sometimes we can miss important things during the mass because other things distract us. The Offertory is highly symbolic. The part of the mass after the bidding prayers is NOT called ‘the offertory’ because the collection bags are going round. That’s a side show, it just happens to be a convenient point to collect in the money that the Church needs to function. (In fact, in some countries, the money is collected as people come in or go out).

No, it’s not the money being brought forward that’s important – it’s the bread and wine. These “first fruit” offerings are being brought forward by the people to give to God’s priest. And the priest then blesses these simple foods and then miraculously transforms them into the Body and Blood of Christ, heavenly food that is then given BACK to the people to feed them! To feed them spiritually, as a community gathered before God.

Because we’re human, it is our nature to love life and to live it to the full. We love to celebrate big events together and celebrate each other’s success. That’s why we love things like the Olympics. But we need to keep things in balance, otherwise things can get out of kilter. For we are more than bodily creatures: we are also spiritual creatures.

So here we are today, coming back to the God who made us, to thank Him for the life he gives us, and offering gifts. And those gifts are returned, miraculously multiplied in an act of divine love towards us. What a privilege, what a joy. A true celebration that brings us together, takes us out of ourselves, to gloriously thank God for the thrill of life. It feels great, doesn’t it!

[1] Message to the Pontifical Council for the Laity on the Catholic Sports Movement (3 November 2009).

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:20

[3] Matthew 16:13-14

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