Sport and War

There is something about human beings that makes us want to excel, and we measure our achievement of that goal by competing with others. Sport is a (usually) safe and (generally) wholesome way of campaigning for superiority and recognition. It is a way civilised human beings have devised to allow our universal impulse to compete to be exercised appropriately. We can thank the ancient Greeks for coming up with this way of competing with each other.

 

Sport has its origins, of course, in the physical and mental prowess required for waging war – which is the negative and destructive outlet for human competitive impulses. The genius of the Greeks was to provide games where these impulses could be channelled in a safe and positive way. Their games were a celebration of human achievement, and the prize was merely a victor’s crown of laurel or other leaves. Warfare among the ancient Greek cities was suspended during the sports competitions.

 

Alas, the same cannot be said of our times. Throughout this summer, against the backdrop of all the wonderful sport and sportsmanship we have been privileged to watch, the drumbeat of war has been constant. In the Ukraine, in Syria, in northern Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Gaza the nasty side of the human impulse for superiority has been devastatingly evident. Women, children, the elderly, the weak, and even innocent travellers have been particularly vulnerable to those jostling bloodily for recognition and power. The only achievement of these competitors is not excellence, but terror and destruction. After a continuous history of two thousand years, it is said that there are now no Christians left in northern Iraq, and it looks like Syrian Christians might soon follow them into oblivion.

 

Perhaps these dreadful results of the human impulse for competition will make the rest of us value even more the civilised competition of sport we have celebrated this summer, and may spur us on to pray and work for peace.

Orphans in Hell

Jesus said: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” John 14: 18

 

Most of us are, or will one day become, orphans. In Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” Lady Bracknell says: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”

 

To be orphaned is to be cut off by death from the ones who gave you life, loved you, and nurtured you.

 

This is also a good working definition of what Hell is like: to be cut off from life, love, and nurture: to remain endlessly the same, to stay eternally the same dead, unfulfilled self.

 

In Dante’s vision of Hell in his book “Inferno”, there is a sign above the gates of Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. Hell is a place of broken dreams; it is a place of nightmares. To dream you need at least a flicker of hope. Hell is living eternally with the knowledge of what might have been and what has been lost for want of care and love.

 

Hell is a state of being where nothing will ever grow because there is no life, no nurturing. It’s like being an orphan forever. There is only hopelessness, there is only despair – like the orphaned child continually passed over for adoption.

 

In life we can get glimpses of Heaven; it stands to reason (reinforced by experience) that we can also get glimpses of Hell. For the Saint, glimpses of Heaven may be longer and more frequent; for the Sinner, glimpses of Hell may recur at length. For most of us, these glimpses of one or the other are usually very short.

 

We see Heaven when circumstances in our lives combine to give us the eyes to perceive it and long for it; we see Heaven when we apply ourselves with care to discover it. Heaven is the result of good fortune and care. We are recreated by love and nurturing. We are given new life as adopted children of God.

 

So, is the orphan state that is Hell the result of misfortune or carelessness? It is a combination of both.  Being in Hell involves living with the consequences of both the bad things that have happened to us and the poor choices we have made. For some people – perhaps a few of us here today– life right now is a kind of living Hell. We are orphans, bereft of life and nurturing, without love and without hope. Passed over.

 

In the Epistle today, St. Peter says that Christ after His death went to proclaim to imprisoned souls in Hell what He had done on the Cross even for them.  These souls in prison were all those waiting endlessly for life. “He descended into Hell”, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. He entered into the deepest, darkest place of death and despair. He went as a life-giver and liberator.

 

Christ entered Hell. The One who cried out from the Cross “My God, why have you forsaken me” went in search of other bereft souls. He went looking for those who did not know Him in order to set them free from Hell. And He still does.

 

For us, with glimpses of Heaven and hope so rare, and with glimpses of Hell and despair more frequent, this is our great hope. Misfortune and carelessness may have combined to make us orphans, cut off from life, love, and nurture, but Christ descended even into Hell looking for us. We have not been passed over. “I will not leave you orphaned,” He said. “I am coming to you.”