The Lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…but whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The 2014 Olympics came to a close about two weeks ago and the events in Sochi were seen all over the world. If you missed the Olympics, what was seen in Sochi?
What was seen was the fairytale story of Meryl Davis and Charlie White: friends, teammates, fellow ice dancers who started skating together at age seven. Evidently their mothers sat together at every event and neither missed a single performance. Davis and White brought home the gold for the USA.
What was seen was an epic hockey game between the US and Russia, finishing regulation in a tie after a controversial Russian goal was called back. Unfortunately for the Russians, international rules are slightly different. After no goals in a sudden death overtime, the game ended in a US victory after an eight round shootout, led by the new American hero who stole the show, T.J. Oshie.
What was seen were also things that had less to do with athletics and more to do with a diversity of people from all over the world coming to a different, foreign place. If you paid much attention to some of the early reports, you certainly saw Western journalists noticing what they perceived as notable shortcomings in Russian hospitality—unclean hotel rooms, off-colored tap water, less than perfect translations.
But nothing got quite the same kind of press as this: what was seen in Sochi were hundreds of stray dogs. These dogs were all over the Olympic village like acne on the face of Russia’s prom night. The Western media made a big stink about all the canines and they were not alone. Some of the athletes jumped on the bandwagon. One youthful Olympic skier, Gus Kenworthy, decided to take some selfies with the dogs, put the pictures on Twitter, and the went on the Today show saying he would “take home as many as possible”.
Then, after such enormous press over stray dogs, what was seen in Sochi was the blushing hosts stepping forward to clean up house. Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, funded the building of a humane society outside of Sochi, giving the dogs a shelter and a chance at a new life.
And then what was seen was the media patting itself on the back for a job well done.
Perhaps what was more significant, especially in regards to this last story, is what was unseen.
What was unseen? Perhaps for the Russians that fact that this whole stray dog ordeal was a lose-lose situation. They were damned by Western animal rights activists for their previous attempts a year earlier to deal with the problem and then they were damned by those same Westerners once the Olympics started for not have dealt with the strays completely.
What was unseen? Perhaps the fact that this aluminum oligarch who built the animal shelter, the benevolent Oleg Deripaska, is not the hero he may seem. Unseen are his close ties to a former blood stained Russian government. Unseen is his ascent to power which happened in the pivotal moments of shrewd power grab just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What was unseen? Perhaps all of the Russian influenced, politically motivated, undercurrents that were lead to and were fueling a bloody uprising in Ukraine.What was unseen at Putin’s Olympics was how Putin was continuing to cut off at the knees a whole generation of post-Soviet, Eastern bloc youth. A whole generation of young people who are highly capable, highly educated, socially concerned, and whose opportunities are being stolen by their nation’s super-rich who hold a vice grip on power and will do everything they can to keep it that way.
What was unseen? Perhaps the reaction of that generation fighting for their freedom when they heard that one of the biggest news stories from the Olympics was that a bunch of privileged Westerners had decided to stand up for stray dogs.
As we enter today the season of Lent, and we hear these words of Jesus, words offered to us in an ancient pattern of scripture, as I think about what is seen and unseen, as we begin the Lenten descent with Jesus, I cannot but think of all my brothers and sisters in Ukraine today who are already down.
As we here in the West begin Lent, please know that it is not only what is seen. God hears the prayers of people all over the world who are in their closets and who have not missed people for puppies.
May peace prevail. May God alone judge. And remember, God sees what is unseen.