This weekend the Olympic Torch was in Durham. Early on Sunday morning, a lot of people gathered in front of the Cathedral to see Durham cricketer Paul Collingwood light the Torch before being taking it in procession down to the market place. It was timed to depart at 0833 with the railway precision of a French TGV. The Cathedral choir sang anthems (including, appropriately, Hail Gladdening Light despite the line ‘the lights of evening round us shine). The Chorister School turned out in force, as did the civic dignitaries, the media and the public. The rain had stopped. It was all very merry.
I did some interviews with press, radio and TV. One of the media people asked a question I hadn’t expected. Did I secretly hanker after holding the Olympic Torch for myself? Not especially, I said, though I was pleased for the many ‘ordinary’ people who had been honoured by being asked to carry it. Then it was time to light the flame at the Cathedral door. I found myself standing next to Paul Collingwood so I asked him how heavy the Torch was. ‘See for yourself’ he said and handed it to me. I held it up in the approved way. At once a score of cameras started clicking. Apparently a cleric in a cassock holding the Torch had some novelty value, even if it wasn’t yet lit.
I’d expected that it would all simply be a bit of fun, not much more. But as it was happening, I realised that perhaps it carried a deeper symbolism.
First, lighting the Olympic flame outside a religious building reminded me of the origins of the Olympic Games in classical Greece. In ancient times the Games were deeply imbued with religious ceremonies and rites, indeed they were thought of as a religious event held in honour of the gods who lived on the sacred mountain of Olympus. So what about today? Some would throw their hands up in horror at the thought of linking the Games with God. Yet the question is not whether God will be present in the London Olympics (we know he will be: as Carl Jung famously inscribed on the lintel of his front door, recognised or not, the Deity will always be present), but how we shall recognise and know his unseen presence there.
Second, lighting the Torch at the door of the Cathedral recalled for me the lighting of the new fire early in the morning of Easter Day. The Easter liturgy is the greatest service of the year. The new fire symbolises the light of the risen Christ whom we look forward to greeting in the eucharist. This unconscious resonance with Easter seemed especially apt on a Sunday morning when the early morning eucharist had just been celebrated inside the Cathedral. Light is a great symbol for all people of faith. Perhaps the Olympic flame and the Games themselves can raise the sights of people going through dark times during this economic crisis. Perhaps it can even bring hope.
Third, the ancient Olympics were a time of truce between peoples in conflict. Warfare was forbidden while the Games were taking place. The Flame seems to have had a remarkable effect in bringing people together out on the streets as it passes through cities, towns and villages. It helps to build community. Perhaps we should cut through the dark side of sport with its obsession with power, image and big money and think of it instead as re-creation. When I was a youngster learning to play rugby, our instructor told us: ‘the object of a game is to enjoy yourself. Never forget that’. Joy is always a clue that God is around. So the Olympics could be a striking image of the kingdom of God. When people of every race and background gather together for celebration and recreation, when the barriers of division are broken down, at least for a while, isn’t this a picture of the world as God would like it to be?
Finally (and perhaps I should have put this first), I thought about ancient Greece again, and how the Olympics are its gift to the world. I recalled the agonies (a good Greek sporting word for the struggles an athlete would endure) modern Greece is going through right now. On Sunday, while the Torch was passing through Durham, the Greek people were going to the polls in an election that the whole of Europe was watching anxiously. Their crisis is our crisis. As we celebrate the London Olympics 2012, it’s important that we don’t allow them to become a big distraction from the problems our world is facing. Rather, we should allow the Games to give us a new vision of God’s world as it might be shaped one day. So this is not a time to forget the people of Greece but to hold them in our hearts and pray for a better future for them and for us all.
It was a good start to the day for Durham. It was fun. And it was thought-provoking.