Olympic Liturgy!

The opening ceremony of the London Olympics was striking for its liturgical rites and allusions.

By way of background, Danny Boyle, the Artistic Director, was born in Lancashire; his mother was from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, Ireland, and his father’s family was also Irish. Daniel “Danny” Boyle (born 20 October 1956) is a film director best known for his work on films such as Slumdog Millionaire, Shallow Grave, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Trainspotting. Boyle was an altar server for eight years, and at one stage considered becoming a priest.

Although not religious as we might define it, the Olympics have much deeply engrained in them. The original Olympic Games had an overtly religious context: Mount Olympus in Greece was the abode of the Greek gods. War among the Greek states ceased during the games.

In case you suspect I’m making all this up, keep in mind that Danny Boyle included two overtly religious pieces in the opening ceremony: William Blake’s 1808 poem now well known in a sung version called “Jerusalem.” Beneath this poem, Blake wrote: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29). The poem takes an ancient legend that Jesus, during his hidden years, visited England with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea.

Doyle also included the hymn “Abide With Me,” commemorating those who died in the London bombings of July 2007. And Boyle finished his opening words saying, “We hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality … a belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.”

You can’t get much more Apocalypse/Revelation and Catholic than that! So, thinking over the Olympic opening ceremony, I offer some of the elements that rang bells with me.

The rural idyll at the start of the opening ceremony recalled an era of original innocence, a Garden of Eden, with a hill at one end of the stadium built to recall the Glastonbury Tor, associated in legend with the visit of Jesus.

The Fall seems associated with The “Dark Satanic Mills” in William Blake’s poem, along with intimations of salvation associated not just with the Holy Land, but with where the presence of Jesus is found:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The “Chariot of Fire” recalls Elijah, with an Olympic reference to the film “Chariots of Fire” featured humorously in the ceremony.

Another humorous element with possible Christian echoes is where the monarch (the Queen) leaves her throne and descends from the heavens (by parachute!) among her people (although not to a stable).

The 27 ton Olympic Bell was inscribed with “Be not afeard” (The Tempest, Shakespeare), familiar words from Scripture.

The ceremony of the entry of the Olympic Torch into the stadium in the hours of darkness seems directly from the Easter Vigil. Following the procession with the light, it is shared among seven “acolytes”, and finally to the 204 elements (representing the 204 nations participating – the whole congregation) which become the Olympic Flame.

We have a Commemoration of the Dead: the hymn “Abide With Me”, remembering those killed in London bombings in 2005. Certainly not a secular commemoration, but echoing the words of Jesus, abide in me.

Tim Berners-Lee, who laid the foundations of the World Wide Web, tweets “This is for everyone,” taken up by all in the stands. As James Joyce wrote, in “Finnegans Wake”: “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’”

Towards the conclusion we have the “Communion Rite”: seven billion (bio-degradable) pieces of paper from the sky, representing every human being on Earth. Could this be manna, the Bread from Heaven? We have seen the signs, as did the people in John 6. Mark and John remind us that we need to see further, to see and live what the signs point to. The ultimate sign is the one who lays down his life and takes it up again.

If the Olympic Liturgy of unity and hope were to take root in the lives of all peoples, how would it change the world? If we who share in the Bread of Life have really seen the signs, we, the Body of Christ, are to be Bread broken for the life of the world.

Pádraig McCarthy is a Catholic priest of diocese of Dublin, Ireland, ordained in Rome in 1967.


  1. Just in the interest of examination of the whole tapestry, Father, would you further your allusions to portray:
    *the ode to the national health system
    *the choices of iconic literature and the giant puppetry
    *the sequence litany of British pop from the 60’s to now, and its confluence with technology and demography
    *the weird symmetry between a cover band rendering Lennon’s “Come Together” (He got feet down below his knees…) and Sir Paul’s “Hey Jude” (….don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it bet-uh uh ruh…NAH, NAH, NAH x1M.
    *And HMQEII’s Introit from sacristy to the behind the commoner rail at Olympic Oratory, is that all about interior, “we must watch”, FACP?
    Cool. At least JERUSALEM is a great call for an alius cantus aptus fourth option.
    But it was indeed, a “work FOR the people.” Look forward to your futher takes.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #2:
      KLS, great catch! The choral bits were all thrilling. However, when the sequence of the four “nationalities” got to the Welsh kids I heard a sonority unlike the others that also maintained the purity and precision. And the only word I could think of was “robust.” And kudos to the sign language kids as well. They, along with that marvelous percussonist, are “proofs” of God.

      All in all, it shows how elaborate ceremony can distract from what’s most important. Dear, dear. Was that inference really necessary, Brigid? Apples aren’t oranges. Besides, you’re undercutting your “side’s” reverie with that tut tut.

      1. @Jimmy Mac – comment #10:
        “Yahweh” notwithstanding, I would avoid “Jehovah” like the dickens. If we complain about the pseudo-germanic capitalization of nouns found in the new translation, we should avoid the English misappropriation of Jehovah, which is the German way of writing Yahweh. In German, “Jehovah” sounds pretty close to “Yahweh” (yeh-hoe-wah, not jeh-hoe-vuh).

      2. @Jimmy Mac – comment #10:
        Jimmy, there’s no bond, James or otherwise, between those wonderful Welsh kids singing by the channel and anything “Catholic.”
        Besides, as Martin somewhat implies, I think it may be a given that UK RC’s often just don’t “get the memo.” You know, that one from Bp. Serratelli about the tetrahydraautocephalusgrammatonnageathingy that a local rabbi in my forlorn wilderness said they don’t get too worked up about anyway.

  2. How many of us would have preferred just seeing the teams all walk in and have the Queen announce the opening of the games?

    The pseudo-pagan rites (Olympic flame) can cause a little discomfort, and the extravaganza seems more a distraction than anything else. After all the glitter and glitz, the athletes seemed to be an afterthought.

    All in all, it shows how elaborate ceremony can distract from what’s most important.

    1. @Philip Endean Sj – comment #4:
      US reader here — yes, I was so frustrated to discover later I had missed out on “Abide With Me” (NBC substituted an interview with erstwhile water-god Michael Phelps). The version used at the Ceremony was apparently by Emeli Sande, a Zambian-Scot singer. In our house, the best-loved version of the hymn comes from the Charlie Haden/Hank Jones collaboration “Steal Away.”

  3. Credit should also be given to the writer of the ceremony, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is a very committed practising Catholic.

  4. Maybe the liturgical dimension was what so enthralled me by the opening ceremonies. Talk about an elaborate “entrance rite”.

  5. The feature which most depressingly evoked English Catholic liturgical practice was the way in which the songs appearing at regular intervals generally had little or nothing to do with the themes and texts of the celebration itself. I wonder if Danny Boyle worships in my home parish? 🙁 Recessional Hymn: Na na na na-na-na na….

  6. The visuals of the opening of the Olympics were splendid. They confirm my opinion that the universal Church could profit from advice from practicing, popular artists when it tries to develop new versions of the Mass. It’s the theatrical, visual aspects of the Mass which particularly need professional judgments from the theatrical/movie/TV folks. Mr. Doyle could probably offer some good advice.

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