One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. It’s a fact-based historical drama that just happens to deliver a very Christian message.
The movie focuses on two English athletes competing in the 1924 Olympics – Eric Liddell and his rival Harold Abrahams. Liddell, a Scot and a devout Christian, refuses to run in the Olympic qualification heats for the 100-meter race because the heats are being held on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Even though it is a race that he is highly favored to win, and despite tremendous pressure from the British Olympic Committee, Liddell sticks to his guns and refuses to compete on the Lord’s Day.
After a lot back and forth with the English Olympic committee, a compromise is finally reached. Liddell ends up competing in the 400-meter race because the qualifying heats are being held on a weekday. He goes on to win the 400-meter race and Harold Abrahams ends up winning the 100-meter race.
The real story, of course, is slightly different. Liddell knew about the 100-meter heats being held on Sunday months before the Olympics were being held. So he decided to train for and compete in the 400-meter race well in advance. He was taking a big risk, however, since his odds of taking home gold in the 400 were much greater than the odds of his winning gold in the 100. Liddell’s zeal for his faith and his desire to keep holy the Lord’s Day has always struck me as an inspiring story.
The Games Continue
Some 92 years later, in 2016, over the weekend of March 25, 26 and 27, which happened to be Easter weekend last year, sports enthusiasts in the U.S. weren’t watching the Olympics, but they did have an opportunity to watch plenty of sports on TV or attend a variety of sporting events. The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships were underway. NHL Hockey games, the PGA WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, the LPGA Kia Classic, a number of Major League Baseball Spring Training baseball games, and even Professional tennis matches were all being played and televised. Chances are there were also soccer matches taking place, and maybe even a PBA bowling tournament somewhere.
Even though those three days just happened to be Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, this did not deter either the NCAA or professional sports from the thrill of competition – and an opportunity to make money. I suspect millions of Americans attended the various competitions or watched them on TV.
This year Easter weekend is April 14-16. A quick check of schedules reveals that Major League Baseball games are scheduled for all three days, the PGA RBC Heritage Golf Tournament is being held April 13-16, and the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs will be underway, starting on April 12. Soccer matches are probably being held and maybe even a bowling tournament or two will be taking place as well. And even though many major corporations are closed on Good Friday, retail outlets, movie theatres, and many other venues that cater to the public will likely be open all day Good Friday and all weekend long as well.
Choosing Entertainment Over Jesus
This all says something about the decline of the Christian culture in the United States. Why do Christians, and especially Catholics, choose to go to a game or watch a bunch of highly paid professional athletes on TV on Good Friday or Easter Sunday? Why do so many people choose to go to a movie, or go shopping, instead of spending Easter Weekend, or at least Good Friday and Easter Sunday, contemplating the sacrifice Our Lord made for us and trying somehow to atone for their sins in at least some small way? Are so many people that starved for fun and entertainment that they willingly put their desire for earthly enjoyment ahead of needs of their immortal souls? It boggles the mind.
And, more to the point, why do professional athletes who are Christians not have a problem working on Good Friday and Easter Sunday? This too is disconcerting. Is money that important?
Christians or Pagans?
Now lest I be chided for not being a realist, I get it that professional athletes in league sports have to sign contracts. And if the league schedules a game on Good Friday or Easter Sunday an athlete does not get to say ‘no, I won’t play that day.’ These are the conditions of employment, much the same as for a cashier at the grocery store who is told, ‘you’re working Easter Sunday.’ But league sports do have players’ unions that could negotiate for these days off. Professional golfers, tennis players, and bowlers could also choose to just not enter any tournaments scheduled for these days.
Businesses and professional and amateur sports organizations will probably argue, ‘but there are people who don’t see things that way. They should be able to go to a game if that’s what they want.’ All well and good but this doesn’t mean the Christians have to entertain the pagans. I thought that idea lost its appeal when the Roman Empire collapsed.
Good Friday Golf?
Of course, it’s not just businesses and professional athletes who don’t seem to have a problem disrespecting and dishonoring the sacrifice our Lord made for us. For years some of the members of the golf league I played on used to get a block of tee times on Good Friday. They called it “a tune-up” for the kick off of our league play which always starts in May. Some even sardonically referred to this tune up as the ‘Heathen Open.’
Despite my repeated objections and efforts to convince them that really should not be playing golf on Good Friday, these mostly Christian men continued their Heathen Open tradition for a number of years, without me of course. I don’t know if it was the result of my badgering them or not, but after five or six years the Heathen Open finally ended. I like to think I helped these guys see the error of their ways, but I’ll never really know for sure.
In any case, refraining from secular activities for at least a couple days out of the year is not that big a sacrifice considering the agonizing and excruciating death Jesus Christ endured for us. Attending the Stations of the Cross or even just spending time in silent prayer reflecting on the Passion doesn’t strike me as all that unreasonable. Thankfully, most Christians at least still do go to Mass or attend their denominations’ services on Easter Sunday . . . before they head to movies, or to the mall, or the game, or turn on the TV.
Holidays or Holy Days?
Pope Francis chided the world and how too many people are now choosing to live their lives in his exhortation EVANGELII GAUDIUM. His message in the exhortation about money is similar to messages that the Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II, Paul VI, St. John XXIII, and popes all the way back to Pope Leo XIII have delivered as well:
“No to the new idolatry of money
55. . . . We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
I enjoy sports (participating in and watching sports on TV) as much as the next guy. My wife may even say more than the next guy. But at some point society crossed a line. Good Friday and Easter Sunday seem to have become holidays much like Memorial Day and the 4th of July – days of remembrance but above all opportunities to go out and have fun and spend money. Today the message is ‘By all means remember that Jesus Christ died for us and rose from the dead but don’t forget the economy! We do have to keep it humming you know! Go out and have fun, shop, go to the movies, spend money.’
The Greatest Commandment
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment” (Matthew 22:34-38).
God created us and put us on this earth to love Him and to serve Him. But as a society, we seem to have lost sight of this very basic and overriding truth. American Catholics and Christians need to start putting God first in everything we do. Eric Liddell knew this. Liddell put God first.