From Lands End on May 19th the Olympic flame will begin its journey around the United Kingdom – 8,000 miles or so, usually in the hand of one of 8,000 torchbearers. As the excitement grows, and there is more and more media comment, one question keeps on being asked, 'What happens if it goes out?' And no doubt the question weighs especially heavily in the minds of those chosen to be torchbearers.
The answer given is reassuring: the torch has been rigorously tested beyond anything each bearer is likely to encounter, and, even if the worst did happen, there will always be a flame sourced from the mother flame lit by the sun's rays at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece within a 30 second reach of the extinguished torch. To always have this backup flame from the original source available is in itself, alongside the actual torch relay, a remarkable organizational achievement. Why all this effort to guard one flame?
No voices, however, are raised in objection. There is something profoundly befitting about this, and only this, flame being good enough. It has got to be the light lit at Olympia. It has got to be the outcome of the sun’s ray brought to a blazing focus on an ancient Greek site. Without going into the story of the theft of fire by Prometheus from the great god Zeus; without any defence of fire’s symbolism; and without any appeal to values expressed in a journey shared brought into focus when the cauldron in the Olympic stadium is lit – without all these and more possible justifications, the flame connects in people’s minds. Here’s an authentic sign that connects past Olympiads with the present. It is both ancient and modern. It is a self-authenticating sign; a sign that can be explained, but doesn’t have to be. It strikes as authentic in itself.
Surely the flame of faith has to have the same authenticity about it? It is to be guarded as the genuine article, but it must not be curtailed and bounded by justifications that shade its light. It has to be seen as self-authenticating because it connects before the words are needed. It shines, and the shining makes sense – at least initially – by itself.