Let the games begin!

It’s hard to imagine that it’s already been 4 years since Beijing.  But I still remember the can-you-top-this extravagance of the opening ceremonies.  The spectacle seemed designed to send a clear message to the world: Respect us; we are a force to be reckoned with.

And now for something completely different: this year’s opening ceremonies were the creative postmodern vision of Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire.  Boyle gave us history as an elaborate and high-tech Broadway production number, sprinkled throughout with icons of English culture.

It’s hard to capture it in precise terms, but I was impressed by the humility of the spectacle–if that’s not too much of an oxymoron.  The ceremony celebrated England’s role in the Industrial Revolution, the birth of the modern age.  But it wasn’t an exercise in mere self-congratulation: Boyle didn’t shrink from reminding us of the oppression of women and the Dickensian squalor of early industrialism and its role in manufacturing the engines of war.

Children (some handicapped) were represented throughout, beginning with children’s choirs from each of the British Isles (including one that sang “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”).  A simultaneous tribute to the National Health Service and Brit-lit portrayed children being rescued from their nightmares–threatened by villains from Captain Hook to Voldemort–by a whole army of Mary Poppinses, floating down from the sky.

And not surprisingly, the nation that gave us Monty Python injected into the proceedings a kind of humor that would have been unthinkable in Beijing.  Through a combination of video and live-action, we are meant to understand that the Queen Mother herself parachuted into the stadium from a hovering helicopter, under the watchful eye of James Bond (talk about your royal entrances).  Later, a rendition of the theme from Chariots of Fire by the London Symphony Orchestra becomes the backdrop for the antics of Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson).  You have to love that.

All of this, of course, is but the prelude to the symbolic main event, when the athletes themselves take center stage.  I’ve never been an Olympian myself (lest there be any doubt), but I can imagine the sheer exhilaration they must feel as they march in the Parade of Nations.  They know that they will each have their turn in the spotlight, where years of training come down to mere moments performing on an international stage.

But during the parade, it’s not about performance, winning or losing, or being judged.  It’s about being there, come what may, representing your nation.  Some of the athletes carry themselves with a more restrained dignity; some can barely keep themselves from jumping up and down and waving their arms.  But all of them are smiling.  They may celebrate in their own way, but they are celebrating.

This is the best mental image I have of the glory that awaits the followers of Christ.  There is an even more glorious Parade of Nations that awaits us:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9-10, NIV)

Paul, we know, uses Olympic metaphors to describe the Christian life.  But it’s not about self-aggrandizement or beating your rival.  It’s about fixing your eyes on the prize and disciplining yourself to that envisioned goal:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.  (1 Cor 9:24-27, NIV)

If it’s not too disrespectful to Paul, I’d like to shift the metaphor a bit.  It’s true that the vision of Olympic gold is what drives athletes to the incredible self-discipline needed to make it to the Games in the first place.  At the same time, the vast majority of the athletes also know that they have very little chance of winning even the bronze.  They give everything they have just to be there; the parade is their moment.

I wonder: in a world in which athletic competition is so easily tarnished by outsized egos and multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, could we find motivation in the more communal image of a parade?

Even so, let the games begin.