London 2012 Closing Ceremony: Spectacle and Shadow

Somewhere down where pain and joy live, deep within the seat of our emotions is a desire to be immortal. We’re aware of the raven’s rapping on our chamber door, but we apply our brightest minds to explore the body and medicine in hope of increasing our life expectancy one more year. We know our days are numbered, but all of us hope our lurking death is not the end. We want to transcend.

While watching the Closing Ceremony of these Olympic Games, the concept of transcendence nested in my thoughts and I realized it was what the whole spectacle was about. London felt the pressure of Beijing’s excellence and spared nothing to be sure their Opening Ceremony outperformed and would

ultimately outlast every ceremony that preceded. Thousands of volunteers gave thousands of hours for the chance to be a part of something great, something that would last, something their grandkids could talk about long after they were gone. Transcendence. They hoped that deep longing for immortality could be satisfied by participating in something memorable. The show featured a tribute to J.M. Barrie and his beloved Peter Pan. We love Peter because he personifies that deep longing in all of us; he never grows up. And Peter was created as an homage to his brother David, who died when he was thirteen. Perhaps in Peter, his brother could live on. Perhaps in Peter, we can too. Twenty-seven years ago, an East German team of sprinters sat a world record that remained untouched, until this year. Those ladies were able to accomplish something greater than themselves and in that feat maybe they could live forever. But U.S. 4 X 100 team shattered their record, and cut-in on the East German’s dance with immortality. The idea of participating in something great, setting a record, or writing the great story resonates within us because we know we were made for more than the mundane. We know we were built to last. We have immortality written on our hearts, but sadly we’re willing to settle for Earthly notoriety

This year’s games were special because I shared the pageantry with my sons and I saw it with fresh eyes and renewed enthusiasm. As I sat with Caedmon and Jackson watching the Closing Ceremony I found myself wrapped up in the moment and feeling a bit sad the games ending. Like a crocodile stalking her prey, there was a haunting theme lurking beneath the multi-sensory celebration. I saw humanity put the best of ourselves on display in a valiant effort to outlast, but felt like I was watching a distraught man administer CPR well beyond a flat line. No energy was spared; no emotion unchecked, just reckless, desperate passion to immortalize the dead and dying. The longing was pure, the effort sincere, but the focus askew.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

A man who proclaimed, “I just believe in me. Yoko and me. And that’s reality,” sang to us from the grave. We tried to satiate our thirst for immortality by elevating a mortal and singing a futile dirge. A man who longed for peace and hoped for love to win out rejected the source for true peace and the author of love himself. Like a world record holder, he found a form of immortality in his craft, but just like the East German sprinters, his glory will also fade. He too will be forgotten.

The show brought the great Freddy Mercury into focus. With a marvel of technology the producers were able to have of the greatest vocalists we’ve ever heard serenade us from the past and give thousands the chance to interact with a shadow of the Queen front man. Caught up in the transcendence, I hoped his avatar would lead us in an almost-live rendition of We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions.

But when the scene shifted to the aged but living Queen guitarist, the stark contrast of our mortality shattered the moment. The grey-haired legend tried to look the part with his rock star get up, but there was no denying he was more than twenty years older than his digital image of his deceased front man. Then the ultimate evidence of our limited existence was manifest when another stepped to the mic to lead us in Freddy’s song. The spectacle was an illusion of immortality, but merely a shadow of what once was.

The book of Hebrews speaks often of the shadows we taste and touch here on Earth. The Greek word is ‘skia’ and it portrays the idea of a Heavenly original casting a physical copy for us on Earth. The entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament was a shadow of the one true sacrifice, Jesus Himself. Another definition is, “the shade caused by the interception of light,” and that’s what I observed in the Closing Ceremony. We were trying so hard to be immortal we turned our back on the one who gave us that desire and is the only one who can fulfill it.

Eric Idle sang, “Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin. Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.” Then the band that was almost Oasis hoped the girl was “gonna be the one that saves me.” Finally, The Who proclaimed, “I don’t need to fight, to prove I’m right. I don’t need to be forgiven.

Lennon imagines a world without God.
The Who and Eric Idle sing of ignoring their sin.
The pseudo-Oasis press into a romance to save them.

The Atheist.
The Hedonist.
The Humanist.

In an arena full of miracles, light was intercepted by the deification of man. Like watching a power lifter press 550 pounds over his head and praising the guys who put the weight on the bar, we missed the real story. And we’re not the first ones to do it.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:20-23

The games are great, but if our appreciation of them ends with men, our appreciation is counterfeit. This passage speaks to man’s desire to worship. We’ll worship rivers, jaguars, cows, Olympians, ideas, and musicians but they’re all mere shadows of our heart’s true longing. These moments are glimpses behind the veil, but we’re lost in the velvet.

In the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks to a group of people who share our love of the Olympics, the Greeks themselves.

Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wealth, but we an imperishable. – 1 Cor. 9:25

He doesn’t condemn the competition, nor does he denounce their devotion; he simply shows the Greeks how to see beyond the physical to the deeper, more beautiful reality. C.S. Lewis called this idea Transposing. Renowned thinker John Piper said this about this verse,

(Paul) taught the Christians to transpose them [the Olympics] into a different level, and to see in the games a reality very different than everyone else is seeing. He said in effect, “The games are played at this level of reality. They run at this level. They box at this level. They train and practice and deny themselves at this level. They set their sights on gold at this level. Now I want you to see all that at another level. I want you to transpose the temporary struggles and triumphs of the Olympic Games onto a different level of reality – the level of spiritual life and eternity and God.

Photo by WALLY SKALIJ

The games were magnificent, but we need to see them on that different level. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies were marvelous, but they were a mere shadow of something greater. The Olympics were a two-week display of God’s grand design in the human body and rightly enjoyed. And while some might consider them frivolous, with the correct perspective frivolous is exactly what we need.

Dance and games are frivolous, unimportant down here; for “down here” is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in better country is the End of Ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven. –C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian

Beneath the smog of humanism, if you really paid attention, the Closing Ceremony gave the occasional glimpse of Heaven: the nations of the world gathered for a common purpose; joy and celebration amidst radiant, penetrating light; uninhibited singing and cheering for the glory of – the light intercepted by our devotion to ourselves.

Despite Lennon’s desire, Heaven is real and it will be glorious, but we won’t be there if we resist our need to be forgiven. We won’t get there hoping we can save ourselves or that someone else might save us. You and I were hardwired to worship the God who created it all. We’re discontent on this celestial ball because we’re not home; Heaven is our home. We so easily give ourselves to beautiful events like the Olympics because eternity is in our DNA. When the celebration of Heaven ensues, exposing these events for the shoestring, silent movie, unimpressive shadows they really are. In that moment, when the Savior of the World is worshipped as only He deserves, we will know true immortality and our longing will be fulfilled. We will be home.

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