Monthly Archives: September 2011

Grand Final Week: Footy and Faith

I’m a Collingwood fan.  That surprises many and shocks a few.  I have all my teeth, a tertiary degree and do not own a pair of ugg boots.  Furthermore, I do not think that any of the aforementioned characteristics make me an atypical supporter.  I’m pretty happy that my team has made the Grand Final.  For reasons passing understanding I am going to be in far western Queensland for the game, but as the brother in the MGL who was lucky(!) enough to watch the game with me on Friday night will testify, I don’t need to be at the MCG to make a fair bit of noise when the ‘Pies are playing.  To be honest, I think we’re up against it next weekend, but then I also think that we don’t do well when we’re favourites.  So I’m happy with the underdog tag for next Saturday.

Non-Victorian readers may not believe me, but it really is hard to appreciate just how seriously people take it down here unless you live in Melbourne.  And there are some, probably many in the churches who deride the obsession with footy as an idolatrous substitute for faith.  They’re probably right.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the footy is a secular liturgy.  The commentators resort to clichés when they describe the ‘G as a sporting cathedral, the fans converge on the ground like Sunday morning worshipers in suburban parishes, and the game itself is a delicate combination of ritual and pageantry that rival a high Mass in terms of spectacle.  And for many, the devotion and adoration for their team, maybe even for the game itself, is surely a substitute for worship of God.  The rabid fans who paint their bodies black and white or blue and white next weekend are proof that the the human being is truly homo liturgicus: we make liturgies, rituals in our lives, even when we don’t intend to.  The world is not divided into those who worship the divine as they best understand it and those who don’t, into theists of all stripes on the one hand and atheists on the other.  We are all worshipers.  What distinguishes us is not if we worship or not but what we worship.  And in a world where many regard God as far beyond their reach, the Pies or the Cats or some other team will sadly do for some as the focus of their devotion.

Any other week of the year, I would quite possibly be waxing far more lyrically about this, and of the pretty poor substitute that a footy team (even the Magpies!) is for the Lord of all Creation.  And for the record, I really do think it is a tragedy when people’s ultimate sense of happiness ebbs and flows with the fortunes of their team.  But it’s Grand Final Week, and my team are going to run out on Saturday.  So without rejecting the argument above, let me offer a different take on footy and faith.

Some of you will remember the movie Chariots of Fire which tells the story of the sprinter Eric Liddell’s attempt to win gold at the Paris Olympics. Liddell was a missionary, and refused to run on Sunday because he didn’t want to break the Sabbath.  My favourite moment in the movie is when his sister, a devout if slightly puritanical woman, asks why he is pursuing his Olympic dream.  She reminds him that his calling is to go to China, and tells him that she cannot understand why he is wasting his time with running when it is clear what his real mission in life is.  Liddell responds by saying to her that he knows that God has made him to be a missionary.  He then pauses and says, ‘but he [God] has also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure’.  To believe that a human being excelling physically, or more accurately, that human beings excelling physically together in extraordinary displays of synchronicity that we usually simply call teamwork, gives glory to God ought not be a stretch for the believer.  Footy is really a riff on Irenaeus’ much quoted dictum that  ‘the glory of God is the human being fully alive’.  Think about it.  This isn’t about winning; it is about being in what psychologists call ‘the flow’, experiencing the intrinsic joy and even rapture of excellence.  Witness Buddy Franklin’s goal last Friday that nearly won the Hawks the match.  As a Pies fan I might have been horrified, but as a lover of the game I could not but be in awe.  And on a warm September afternoon, as the pill is sent up and down the ground at breakneck speed and as the sheer athleticism of the players leaves us spectators breathless, is this not a scene of great beauty?  Couldn’t it be a glimpse of glory? Am I going too far when I suggest that Augustine might have been thinking of footy when he recognised that all created things can be reduced to idols or elevated to sacramental signs of God’s presence?  Perhaps, but only just.  After all, it is Grand Final week, and my team are running out this Saturday.  Carn the ‘Pies.

The Triumph of the Cross

Yesterday I received a royalty cheque from St Pauls, the publishers of In the Light of the Cross.  With the cheque came the notification that they have sold the final copies of the book.  So there may be the odd copy in bookstores around the country, and I have a small supply left, but otherwise the print run is now exhausted.  As the book is closely tied to World Youth Day 08, I’m not envisaging that there will be a second printing.

Fr Tom Rosica, the CEO of WYD Toronto in 2002, once said to me that we need to keep telling the stories of our respective World Youth Days to remind people of the days of grace that we experienced.  So with Fr Tom’s encouragement, I hope you find the reflection below on the Triumph of the Cross (today’s Feast) illuminating and inspiring.

Each year on September 14, the Church celebrates the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. We were in Townsville for the actual feast in 2007, but it could sometimes seem like every day was the Triumph of the Cross on the Journey of the Cross and Icon because people frequently chose to celebrate the Mass of the Triumph of the Cross when the WYD Cross came to town.

The First Reading for this feast is strange. It is taken from the book of Numbers and tells the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. They lose ‘patience’ with God and Moses, complaining that the manna that God had provided was not sufficient. Fiery serpents then ravage the Israelite camp, killing many. At the people’s urging, Moses then intercedes with God to save the people. God tells Moses to make a serpent and raise it on a standard. Moses did as God asked and made a serpent out of bronze and anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent and lived (cf. Num 21:4-9). It seems an odd choice for the First Reading.

One rationale for the choice of this reading is that the Gospel for the feast includes a reference to Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the desert. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:14-15). The Gospel continues with the famous verse: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

It might seem then that the reference to Moses in the Gospel and the odd choice of First Reading are just a prelude to this crucial verse. The truth however is stranger and more interesting than that. A helpful key to understanding the relevance and significance of these passages is to remember that the feast being celebrated when we hear these readings is the Triumph of the Cross. In other words, these passages tell us something about the Cross.

Let’s take the First Reading for a moment and reflect on what is happening in this strange tale. When Moses fashions the bronze serpent, he is making an image of the very thing that has been killing the Israelites. The serpents are the agents of death, killing people by their venom, but, at God’s instigation, an image of the serpent – the creature that is killing the people – becomes the instrument that saves them from death. The reason for Jesus’ use of the image in the Gospel is now probably obvious, as he is saying to Nicodemus – and to us – that when he (Jesus) is raised up as the bronze serpent was raised up on a standard, people will be saved from death. The standard that Jesus is hoisted upon is, of course, the Cross. The worst instrument of torture and death known to the ancient world becomes the very instrument that God uses to bring about ‘eternal life’ or salvation.

This is the ‘triumph’ of the Cross – that the means of execution has become the balm of healing. The ‘great reversal’ of the Cross’s meaning that we see here has become a favourite theme of authors down the centuries who have sought to shed light upon the power of the Cross. To take just one example from the tradition, Theodore of Studios, who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries, wrote:

How splendid the cross of Christ!

It brings life, not death; light not darkness;

paradise, not its loss.

It is the wood on which the Lord,

like a great warrior,

was wounded in hands and feet and side,

but healed thereby our wounds.

A tree had destroyed us;

a tree now brought us life.

The strongest symbol of this reversal is in the last sentence, where the Cross is described as the tree of life. The Cross is the tree which undid the damage caused by the fruit of the tree that our first parents ate in disobedience to God. This image speaks of the new life that has flowered from the Cross of Christ. I was reminded of this image throughout the journey whenever flowers were placed on or around the WYD Cross.

(The passage from Theodore of Studios was printed in the booklet for Morning Prayer with the Cross and Icon at the Broome campus of the University of Notre Dame. Sr Jill Shirvington had prepared the text.)

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