Monday 6 August 2012

Olympic Glory on Mount Tabor

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Yesterday the world witnessed the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt set an Olympic record in the 100-metre dash in London and win the gold medal. He ran, not for a piece of metal per se, but for what it represented: being a champion. All the hours of training, sweat and sacrifice were for that goal and its one defining attribute: glory.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, in which Christ’s glory is revealed to three of his apostles on top of Mount Tabor. So what exactly is this thing called glory?

At first glance it is merely human renown, fame, praise and honour – the basking in the limelight of adulation. Aristotle listed the “honour of men” as one of the objects of life that are often sought but ultimately fail to satisfy (along with riches and pleasure). Does this mean the glory of athletic victory is but a vain pursuit? The answer is not so simple.

My Dictionary of Theology says that in the Old Testament, glory was the majestic radiance that manifested God’s presence. In the New Covenant, the glory of God is revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. St. Augustine called glory clara notitia cum laude, or “brilliant celebrity with praise”, a divine quality that is reflected among God's creatures.

But if glory is sought as an end in itself, it generally eludes our grasp. “If I were to seek my own glory, that would be no glory at all; my glory is conferred by the Father,” said Jesus. Real glory is something bestowed, granted in recognition of a feat accomplished for something other than personal gain. We scorn the celebrity who misuses his “glory” and lords it over his competitors. Looking at Christ, we realize that glory comes about primarily because he gives of himself without thought for himself.

Aquinas wrote that if the type of glory we have manifests something which is honourable, then appreciating it in oneself is not sinful, nor is it sinful that we should desire to see that good approved by others: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Matt. 5:16). What is to be avoided is a disordered desire for prominence called vainglory, which is just another form of pride. This happens when we seek fame for a quality that is not really worthy, such as one’s money, power, or having the wittiest putdowns. Also, when we seek the esteem of people whose judgment is not sound, or most importantly, when we desire glory before others ahead of glory before God – as was the case with the Pharisees, who “loved the glory of men more than the glory of God” (John 12:43) – we are risking vainglory.

St. Irenaeus famously said that the glory of God is man fully alive. We are called to be alive to the utmost degree, and this happens the more we live through him, with him and in him. When we follow Christ, our lives will spring open with the glory of God, reflect it to the world, and participate in the great and glorious kingdom-project that is both in heaven and on earth.

So what of athletic glory? Let's recall Eric Liddell’s words in the film Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Liddell’s glory was God’s glory, a reflection of God’s pleasure, and it was good. It was the radiance bestowed by a father, the same father who shouted on Mount Tabor to all creation: “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!”


  1. Great blog John. Love the Eric Liddell quote: "I feel His pleasure"... so true... me too!