Paralympics and the paracleteBy John W. de Gruchy Anabaptist Network in South Africa
“He will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).
Many of us were enthralled earlier this month as we watched the Paralympic Games every evening on television. They have been mesmerizing, even more so than the regular Olympics were a few weeks earlier, and also very humbling. They not only attracted enormous crowds of spectators, but some reports suggest that these exceeded those of the Olympic Games themselves. And for us South Africans it was exciting because we have won our fair share of medals. After all, Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorious are not only national heroes, but Paralympic global stars.
But do you know what the word “Paralympics” means?
Para is a Greek preposition that is used as a prefix in many English words: parable, parabola, parachute, paradigm, paradise, paradox, paragon, paragraph, parallel, paralyse, paramount, paranoia, paraphrase, parakeet, paraphernalia, and paraplegic, to mention some — but by no means all — of the possibilities. So why are the Paralympics called by that name? Some might think that it has something to do with the fact that many participants suffer from some kind of paraplegia. But that is not the reason. The preposition “para” means “from,” “at,” “by,” or “by the side of.” Paralympics simply means the games that are held alongside of the Olympic Games.
Para is also used in the original Greek in John 14:16: “He will give you another Advocate (literally “Paraclete”) to be with you forever.” While some old hymns refer to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, most English translations of the New Testament use the word “advocate” as this also means someone who stands beside you in support of your cause, though it is more a legal metaphor than I think is warranted or helpful in describing the work of the Spirit. I suppose it is not a bad thing to use advocate rather than paraclete, but maybe some reflections on the Paralympics will provide another way of understanding the Spirit as Paraclete, and not in the legal sense of an advocate.
Many images flash through my mind as I think back on the remarkable athletic achievements against great odds that we witnessed on TV during the Paralympics. But one image sticks. It is of those guide runners who ran alongside the blind competitors in order to ensure that they stayed in their lanes just like guide dogs help them in their daily lives. Not only did they have to be very skilled as guides, but they had to run as fast as the competitors, and keep in synch the whole way, sometimes over long distances. It was so right and fitting that those guide runners whose companions won medals should likewise be rewarded. They were genuine “Paracletes” — those who ran alongside of the blind competitors, enabling them to stay on track, and without whom the runners could not run the race. The guide runners provided the eyes and the encouragement that the runners needed.
This, I suggest, is a good analogy for the work of the Holy Spirit as any. “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said” (John 14:26). The Spirit will guide you into all truth. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the presence of the risen Christ who is beside us as we seek to run the race of faith, leading us in the right direction. We do not run unaided; we are strengthened and enabled by the ever present Spirit of Christ.
Yet just as it is true that we are dependent on the Spirit of Christ to live the Christian life, it is also true that it is we who run the race. Once again the image of the guide runner at the Paralympics comes to mind. For the guide runner is attached to the competing athlete by a rather loose cord, not by a tight metal strap, or as in a three-legged race such as we used to run as children. The guide runner does not drag or pull the competitor, but gently leads and encourages his companion, and then a few metres from the finishing line actually lets go so that the runner can win on his or her own. In other words, the Spirit gives us space and the freedom to be who we are in running the race. The glib statement, “Let’s leave it up to the Spirit,” that we sometimes hear, is actually misleading. The Spirit is beside us, within us, with us, and we could not run without the Spirit as our support and guide; but the Spirit is not our replacement! The Spirit does not run the race for us; the Spirit enables and encourages us to run the race, to run it in our own time, in our own stride. The Spirit does not override our personality; the Spirit is the Paraclete, the one who is beside us as we run.
Each of us is called to be an agent of the Paraclete, namely someone who is called to stand alongside others as they journey through life, just as there are those who stand alongside us. It is hard to imagine how people manage to cope with life without people like that, and I am sure none of us can imagine living without such daily support. In fact, is this not how the Spirit works in our lives and those of others? So maybe today as we think about the Paralympics and continue to take inspiration from all that we have witnessed, we can reaffirm our calling to be guide runners to others, true agents of the Paracletes — not dominating the steps of others, or trying to run their race for them, or patronizing them in their apparent disability, but encouraging them as they journey. We cannot run the race for them; but we can help them to reach the finishing line.
John W. de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus and originally appeared online on the Anabaptist Network in South Africa’s blog.
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