She’s already the greatest gymnast of all time. She could have not come to the Tokyo Olympics at all, and this would be true. The United States was projected to win the team competition by a full point and a half, with Biles at full strength. In a competition normally decided by tenths of a point, this is comically absurd.
I don’t want to waste time expressing emotionally charged opinions about mental health issues, because I know others can do that better than I can. But one thing people should realize is that the division between physical health and mental health is a false one. The mind is part of the body. And at this level of competition, for someone to even presumptively return to defend an all-around title at the Olympics is unheard of, and it’s usually not successful. Bodies break down; dominance is eroded by those seeking to imitate and then surpass an athlete who sets a benchmark.
I had a brief conversation with a friend on social media, and she reminded me—- since we are both theologians—- that frailty and fallibility are reminders of death. This is why we are sad when our great heroes can no longer deliver the excellence to which we have become accustomed: none of us wants to be reminded that every day we live brings us closer to the day we die.
We do not hope in Christ to avoid death; we hope in Christ in order to celebrate that death has been defeated, and that the death of our mortal bodies is a harbinger of the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Physical death is but one consequence of the fall of humankind. Spiritual death is much worse, the foretaste of eternal separation from God.
The good news is that Christ himself died for us, and was raised to new life, to proclaim that victory over death. He did not die for the best of us, either as individuals, or as a group. He died for the worst of us, and for the worst moments and things we have done. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. If that is so, then we are beloved, not for anything in us, but for what Christ wants to be in us. St. Paul will later say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Do you remember after Jesus was in the tomb, and Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, went to check on the body? Jesus wasn’t there. Mary saw a man there, and she supposed it was the gardener. And then Jesus said her name. What tenderness she must have experienced! Our names are at the very core of who we are. When our Savior and God calls our names, we know—- or we ought to know—- that it is with the greatest affection. We have the opportunity to be known and loved as no one else in the world is quite able to do. I hope and pray in this moment, and in all the moments following, that Simone Biles knows she is beloved, beyond the love of her family, her teammates, and even beyond the love shared by fans on social media, or in letters.
Jesus doesn’t care how many gold medals she has won. Jesus does not expect her to lead Team USA to any more victories. Jesus loves Simone Biles, because he loves her.
It’s awfully easy to say this, when we know that so many of us derive a great deal of identity from what we are able to accomplish. If I couldn’t write anymore, or speak about Jesus, or anything else I’m able to do, I would feel a great loss. Yet the truth is that the only way my life would be wasted is if I had never known and loved Jesus.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I will be afflicted with some great memory loss, like Alzheimer’s disease, or some other affliction. Yet even if I did not know who I was, there are those who love me who do. Crucially, and most importantly, Jesus knows exactly who I am, and I will never be snatched out of his hand. If I never make something of myself in the world’s eyes—- and even among those who claim to be in the Church—- Jesus has already made me a great success. We must pray for the grace to believe this. We must pray for the power of the Holy Spirit, to live in this heart-awareness. If I could meet Simone Biles, I would hug her, and I would remind her of these things.
Let us not participate in these inhuman rituals of asking people to perform for us, to be symbols for us, in such a way that they cannot be anything else. We who claim to hope and believe in Christ should know and do better than the rest of the world, in this respect.
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