The Torch Race

Lampadedromia

I had the privilege to spend 3 weeks in Athens, Greece last summer as part of a team whose task was to digitize thousands of pages of ancient manuscripts at the National Library in Athens. I was also able to find some time to visit many of the ancient ruins in Athens. I am reminded today of one ancient contest that was popular throughout Greece. You’ll think of the Olympic torch that we continue to watch today in the summer Olympics. Our modern ceremonial (rather than competitive) adaptation, ironically enough, began in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin under Adolf Hitler, who had a fascination with ancient empires and their activities. In ancient times, the torch carrying was actually a ceremony and a competition between the 10 Athenian tribes. Contestants would race with a torch in one hand and many times a shield in the other, from one sacred site to another, at night, as the main event of various festivals. A contestant  or team of contestants, in some cases, won the race by arriving first at the designated finish with the torch still aflame. If the flame were to ever extinguish, then the runner or team disqualified itself. Hence, this is why some of the runners carried a shield—to guard the flame from opposing forces that may extinguish it. By ancient accounts, it was a daring, race. I read in one place that it could be a distance up to two miles. In Greek, the race was called the λαμπαδηδρομία or the “Torch Race.” Lampa meaning torch and dromia from the word for a race circuit or course. So, to win the Torch Race, you had to run hard; you had to run smart; you had to run together; and you had to run to finish.

The Race of Life

One ancient author reflecting near the end of his life wrote, “I have struggled/fought the good/worthy struggle; I have finished the race course; I have guarded the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). This particular writer saw himself as a servant to his particular God, and in the previous context, he wrote that his life was like a drink offering, being poured out in service. Seeing that only drops of life remained, he reflected on his struggle, his race, and his faith. He described his struggle or fight as good, excellent, or useful. Opposition is implied. According to the University of Penn, another fascinating feature of the Torch Race is that if those who had lost the flame of their torch could overtake a runner who still possessed his torch, the torch would have to be surrendered to the prevailing runner. For these runners, the struggle was real. It took great skill and fight to endure.
Author Irving Stone has spent a lifetime studying greatness, writing novelized biographies of such men as Michelangelo and Vincent van Gogh. Stone was once asked if he had found a thread that runs through the lives of these exceptional people. He said,
I write about people who sometime in their life. . . have a vision or dream of something that should be accomplished . . . and they go to work. They are beaten over the head, knocked down, vilified and for years they get nowhere. But every time they’re knocked down they stand up. You cannot destroy these people. And at the end of their lives they’ve accomplished some modest part of what they set out to do. (Crossroads, Issue No. 7, p. 18.)
The author next states that he had finished his race course. It’s interesting to me that he didn’t use any of the possible Greek words that mean “to win” or “to gain victory.” This author demonstrates knowledge of such vocabulary in his other writings, but here he chooses the verb “to finish.” Perhaps, he chooses this word to maintain the metaphor of pouring out his life in service. Winning doesn’t quite fit as well as finishing or completing.
Two men among several traveled 674 miles from Nenana to Nome, Alaska in the 1925 serum run known as the Great Race of Mercy. They aimed to deliver medicine to a large diphtheria epidemic. Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo covered the most hazardous and longest stretch of 91 miles, and the Norwegian, Gunnar Kaasen, and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. These teams were trying to finish their race in service to others.
Lastly, the author writes that he has guarded the faith. The Torch Race image of the runner using his shield to guard and protect the flame of his torch. Without a lit torch at the end, a runner could not complete the Torch Race. The faith for this particular author referred to the total body of belief that he held concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The faith that he guarded was his most precious, most valuable possession.
He believed that his fight, his race, and his aflame faith would receive a crown from the one who had the true worth and authority to reward contestants. At the end of the Torch Race, the victor received a major award. I read one account where I believe the victor received one bull and 100 drachma ($2500).

Season of Accomplishment

In all seriousness, my hope is that this graduation season encourages you on to more and greater things. No doubt you have fought to get here, and I hope that the struggle has proved useful for the next arena. Many of you reading this have finished and completed several years of school and coursework, and as someone who has spent many years in school, that is always something worth celebrating! I hope too that you have guarded something in your finishing. Like this ancient author, I hope that you too have kept the integrity of your faith aflame. Regardless of your background, I think that we can all agree that there are precious things, like faith, integrity, honesty, hope, peace, and so on, that must accompany us to the finished line in order to make the finish line all that it is meant to be.
So, I pray now that you will endure the struggle ahead—looking for the meaning and the profit of the struggle, determine to finish your race, and figure out the most precious things in life and guard those things as you go. And as you pour out your life, may your reward be blessed.