Image: Traditional Games
The nature of athletic competitions is very often influenced by the culture in which they arise. One example of this would be the many sporting activities practiced in the north which are collectively known as Traditional games. Given the harsh climate and difficult living conditions faced by the first settlers in this land it would make sense that the athletic events which they played, when they had any spare time away from their struggle for survival, would be focused on building skills for success in the inhospitable land.
Most of the events of the Traditional games involve great feats of strength, agility and the ability to endure tremendous amounts of pain. One example is the ear pull in which two competitors wrap a ligament thong around the back of one of each of their ears. The object then is to pull, while on all fours, as hard as possible trying to inflict as much pain on the other’s ear so that they will give up. The winner is the one who conquers the rest of the players by standing more pain then the rest of his peers.
If the point of the game is not to hurt your neighbor but rather, to be personally prepared for what might come your way, then Paul and Barnabas may have benefitted from such training. In today’s reading from Acts we learn that where only days before they had been lauded as gods they now are stoned by dissenters and left for dead, the life of an early missionary was fraught with peril.
It is perhaps no wonder that as the Church experienced persecutions throughout its history certain ascetical practices would develop among those who followed a more dedicated religious path. Fasting, long sessions of prayer, even physical practices from hair shirts to self-flagellation were meant to instill a discipline that was required to withstand mental, spiritual and physical challenges to the faith. In some sense, it was like preparing for a battle.
Unlike a soldier of war, who must be hardened both physically and emotionally, a Christian soldier must find a more delicate balance between a certain mental toughness while at the same time having a heart open to the needs others. The Christian must always be open to love everyone including and especially those who hate us.
Competition is a part of our human nature, when facing a threat, we respond instinctively by trying to rise to the top at the expense of others to preserve our life. Jesus showed a different way. He showed that by giving to others and loving them, even if it is painful, we receive something of greater value than our life. We receive God’s life, and we discover that can live beyond our human nature with God’s grace.
As Jesus was departing the world he said to his disciples,
“Peace I leave with you; I do not give as the world gives, do not be afraid…The ruler of this world is coming but He has no power over me.”
It is fitting that as Jesus was preparing to give his life on the cross he was not thinking about himself but rather of the disciples, even those who were prepared to betray him. He offered them peace and hope and encouraged them not to be afraid. Let us prepare ourselves to offer the same gift to the people in our life that we find trying or difficult and conquer them with love and kindness.