The Methodists, the Unitarians and the African Methodist Episcopalians over on Orange Grove Boulevard this Sunday morning will be keeping one eye on the preacher up front and the other on the traffic outside. Otherwise, they could find themselves blocked in their parking lots for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, clergy serving the Presbyterians, Catholics and plain Episcopalians farther east will be watching the length of communion lines and the hands on the clock. In pockets underneath their cassocks, some of them are sure to be holding game tickets more precious than virtue.
It's Super Bowl Sunday in Pasadena, and since it's the Lord's Day, too, the customary Sabbatic calm of the worshipping community will be thrown off by the immigrant heathen hubbub--the heavens abuzz with airplanes, helicopters and blimps; the brunch places, ordinarily so restorative after a tedious sermon, given over to the free-spending fans of the Broncos and Giants; and the city's western streets rendered practically useless to those who live along them until after the 3 o'clock kickoff.
Taking all that into account, more than a few reverential residents are sure to mutter that, material benefits to the city notwithstanding (at least $1 million, according to the Pasadena Convention & Visitors Bureau), spiritual values will have been trampled like chaff. Super Bowl Sunday, in short, tries a body's Christian charity.
In the opinion of some people--I have in mind St. Paul the Apostle, Pope John Paul II, and, modestly, myself--that attitude not only misunderstands but maligns the situation. Because sport is itself a kind of religious experience. Pasadena, perhaps, should see that the Super Bowl--advertised as the quintessential athletic experience of human history--is a blessing in disguise.
St. Paul was fond of likening ministry and discipleship to prizefights and track meets. No paineth, no gaineth, etc. And the current Pope has said more than a few times that he regards athletic endeavor as one of humanity's highest spiritual attainments--mentioning loyalty, fair play, generosity, friendship, solidarity, respect and cooperation. "Are not athletic values the deepest aspirations and requirements of the Gospel message?" is typical of the way he sees the issue.
Paul, John Paul and I are not alone in associating sport and spirituality--in particular football and spirituality. A kind of ecumenical body of thought has lately been developing on the subject.
Russell Chandler reported in The Times, for example, that Father Andrew Greeley has determined that all public sports spectacles contain a powerful religious component: the forces of good pitted against the forces of evil.
And Illinois Evangelical Sociologist James Mathisen recently told delegates to a religious conference that the Super Bowl itself is a "ritual expressing and communicating a secular religion of the American Dream."
Then along comes David Mamet, an urbane writer with no theological pretensions that I know of, echoing Mathisen's perceptions in his latest book, "Writing in Restaurants": "Only two legitimate holidays remain," Memet writes, when Americans are united--the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl. Holiday, you'll remember, is the variant spelling of holy day.
While Mathisen's analysis of our secular religion may be a little rarefied for some tastes--the founding of the nation, he suggests, is corporately portrayed in the action of the football game itself; our national fantasies are acted out by the marching bands at half-time--individual players and fans in increasing numbers seem to be making the football-as-religion connection.
There is the John 3:16 Scripture reading, an evangelical cheer for Our Side so succinctly expressed on bed sheets that people in the stands have taken to waving at television viewers whenever field goal and extra-point kicks sail through the uprights.
There is the pious ceremonial. A kick-returner makes the sign of the cross just before some streaking tackler attempts to dismember him; a wide receiver drops to a worshipful knee after scoring six points. Jeff Van Raaphorst, quarterback for Arizona State University, wears a scrap of Old Testament Scripture on adhesive tape around his throwing arm. "In quietness and confidence shall be your strength," the verse says; thus emboldened, he led his team to this year's Rose Bowl victory.
The religious factor is even working its way into media coverage. Michael Goodwin, a New York Times reporter, catching the spirit praised NBC's recent coverage of the Fiesta Bowl, writing that the network deserved "100 hosannas." Strictly understood, that means NBC is due to collect from somebody 100 utterances of the Hebraic entreaty "Save us, we beseech thee."