The Olympics – A Reflection for Palm Sunday
This is a fun age quiz: Which are the first Olympics you remember watching? This should be an easy question to answer…at least for some people…and it will remind you how old (or young) you are.
An article appeared online last year titled “You never forget your first Olympics”, the author Bob Fitzgerald narrates his experience witnessing the Olympics of 1976; the most memorable event for him was the performance of a Japanese gymnast who in spite of having a broken leg, managed to compete and deliver a nearly perfect routine in the rings…he describes it in the following way: “In an almost inhuman display of strength and concentration, the gymnast performed what looked to me like a perfect exercise, even landing a perfect dismount. The image is burned into my brain. I was only five and this is one of my earliest memories.”
I also have a vivid memory of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. I remember sitting in the living room of my aunt Melly’s house and watching the inauguration ceremony on T.V. with my cousin Anna and the rest of the family. The fact that I was watching the ceremonies at my aunt’s house was very significant for me due to one specific and significant detail: my aunt lived in Munich, Germany…I had been staying with her family for almost a month and this was the first time that I had been away from my native El Salvador for such an extended period of time…
Call me sentimental, but being away from my country awakened in me a sense of patriotism and nostalgia which I had never experienced before in my life (twelve years of life to be exact). I remember watching the delegations from every country march around the Olympic stadium; first the A countries, Angola, Argentina, Australia Austria etc. Afterwards the B countries, then C’s and so on…I was eagerly awaiting for the E countries to come out and march, I was expecting to see the Salvadorian delegation among them…with much anticipation.
Finally, the E countries came out, first the Ecuador delegation, then the Egypt delegation…I expected El Salvador to come next, but to my surprise, it did not happen…I waited, and waited…then the F countries started marching…I was so confused; what had just happened? Where is El Salvador? To my surprise the Spaniards had decided to place the El Salvador delegation among the S countries…the S!!! I remember thinking “that is almost at the end of the alphabet!!!!” I was not happy about the unexpected change, to say the least.
I continued half-watching the rest of the countries march…the ones starting with F, H, G, and so on. I waited, and waited…and at last…the S countries started marching out in the stadium…again my spirits lifted and anticipation started to build up once more…then it happened… the El Salvador delegation came marching out…it was a handful of people smiling and carrying the Salvadorian flag and a banner that read EL SALVADOR…oh what a sight!
Even though the El Salvador delegation was hardly comparable in terms of size and presence to the delegations of other countries such as Switzerland, Sweden or the host-country Spain, in my eyes, it seemed like the greatest thing on that stadium. My heart was bursting with a mixture of pride, hope and expectation at the sight of those Salvadorian athletes which I will never forget, like Bob Fitzgerald would say; the image was burnt not only in my brain, but also in my heart.
I am sure my feelings regarding the 1992 Olympics were only magnified by my young age and the fact that I was far away from my country. However, last year as I watched the inauguration ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics I could see traces of those same feelings in people’s faces as they cheered and shouted for their respective delegations. The opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was packed with feelings of awe, anticipation and excitement, and it was the culmination of 84 months of preparation and much hard work and sacrifice…and controversy aside, it was a moment of national pride for China.
The Olympic Games normally start with a triumphal entry of an athlete carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium…giving a great start to a significant event…the bible narrates a similar story of how the most important week in the history of mankind started with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
The Triumphal Entry (John 12: 12-19)
The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written,
“Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.
Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
Beijing and Jerusalem
In 2001, China was awarded the rights for the Olympic games, and from that time onwards the entire city of Beijing became a “work in progress”. Beijing became a permanent construction site…slowly transforming into a cosmopolitan center worthy of hosting a world class event; this process included the completion of great landmarks such as the Birds Nest and the Olympic Village. Jerusalem at the time when Jesus walked on earth was no different from Beijing in 2008; scholars have described it as a “great metropolitan area home to the lavishly restored Jewish Temple, a world-renowned wonder” comparable to modern day London or New York City. (source http://www.time.com/time/2001/jerusalem/cover.html).
According to the official website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (http://en.beijing2008.cn/news/official/ioc/n214520633.shtml) the inaugural ceremony for the games was viewed by nearly 4 BILLION people…that is roughly 2/3 of the world’s population (the world population is 6,771,182,070). Just like Beijing in 2008, the city of Jerusalem in 31 A.D. was in a period of Renaissance….and the Passover and the festival of the tabernacles drew thousands of people to Jerusalem…specifically to the Temple; which became the epicenter of attention and activity for all the Jewish folk for a week.
It is in this significant point in time that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and as he approaches, stories of those miracles and signs which he performed precede him; building anticipation among the Jewish folk. The particular circumstances surrounding the Jews at this time in history are noteworthy…they are under Roman oppression, with very little national pride, and their only hope is the messiah who will bring them the much needed victory over Roman rule; restoring their national pride and sovereignty. They have been waiting for this moment eagerly, hearing prophecies and promises regarding the Messiah for decades and decades.
Jesus and the Athletes
It is now easy to see how the emotions awakened in Jesus’ contemporaries regarding his arrival in Jerusalem would resemble those emotions experienced by people watching their country’s delegation arrive at the Olympic stadium; or more specifically, what I felt when I was 12 years old watching the El Salvador delegation walk in Barcelona; a mixture of pride, hope and expectation. On such rare occasions national pride and the anticipation of victory burst inside one’s heart and are expressed in shouts of joy and cheers for the object of one’s hope. For the Jews in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time, Palm Sunday was one of those occasions.
The shouts resounded, “Hosanna!”…but what does this mean? Hosanna is a very special expression, it means “save us” and “praise the Lord who is faithful!”…it is both a cry for help and a shout for praise, and encompasses the realization of a need and the recognition of God’s power on behalf of a man. People recognized Jesus as their hope for victory and restoration…like an athlete can bring victory and honor to a country; Jesus was viewed as the one who could bring victory to Israel and restore the nation’s sovereignty.
There is no aspect of an Olympic event which can be equated to the oppression experienced by the people of Israel …however there are many other aspects of human experience which allow us to taste and know what oppression feels like… and the good news is that there is hope in Jesus.
Conclusion: The difference between Beijing and Jerusalem
“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout Daughter of Jerusalem!
See your king comes to you
Righteous and having salvation
Gentle and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
There is one big difference between Beijing 2008 and Jerusalem in the time when Christ walked on earth…the victory won by athletes in the Olympics in Beijing was significant, but temporary… Jesus’s victory on the cross is the most important victory ever won and it has eternal implications for every person who chooses to believe in Christ as his or her savior.
As we enter Easter we celebrate that victory.
What Jesus did on the cross was indeed to bring victory to Israel, and to us…however, his methods were not understood by many, not even his disciples. The bible narrates that it was only in retrospect “only after Jesus was glorified” that the disciples understood how Jesus was fulfilling God’s promises. Jesus himself said to Peter; “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7)
There may be “things of God” that we (or the people around us) do not understand, or promises which we have yet to see fulfilled… the good news is we can still rejoice, Jesus brought salvation, victory and restoration to us and we will understand his purposes at some point if not now, then later. In the mean time, we can rejoice. Rejoice because Jesus loves us, rejoice because he brought us salvation and we can experience that love and salvation today. Jesus is our champion, we can celebrate and praise HOSANNA.