Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Football Pilgrimage

On Sunday I made a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field. Though I grew up in Wisconsin and have been stationed here for the past six years, I'd never made the trip to Green Bay for a Packer game. A good friend of mine invited me to the game on Sunday and I can't help reflecting on the experience.

In many ways football games in the U.S. have become a kind of religion. It seems to me that the human spirit longs for a spiritual experience and when that hunger isn't filled by the real thing, we have all sorts of substitutes to fill the void. Here are some of the "religious" themes that I saw on Sunday.

1. There are rituals in preparation for the event. As we walked to the stadium we passed one tailgate gathering after another and most of them involved "spirits" to help people prepare for the game.

2. The approach to the stadium can only be compared to preparing to enter historic cathedrals. The crowds approach with awe and eager anticipation for the experience they are about to have. Statues of Vince Lombardi and Curley Lambeau stand watch over those entering the stadium.

3. Other "saints" of football are recognized in the stadium where all those whose jerseys were retired are listed as well as those who are in the NFL Hall of Fame.

4. Most of the people in the stands were dressed in special clothing, the jerseys of their favorite players past and present, or in the "liturgical colors" of Green Bay--green and gold.

5. There is a strong sense of tradition in which the past is honored.

6. We were directed to stand and remove our hats for the opening song ("the national anthem"), as a huge American flag was unrolled to cover the field. At the very moment that the song ended two jets flew over.

7. The congregation participated in the game with appropriate "liturgical movements and gestures:--cheers and jeers, jumping up, and giving "high-fives."

In all of this I couldn't help thinking about how the human spirit longs for tradition and ritual, and to feel a part of something bigger than oneself, something that leads you to transcend yourself.
I hope all this doesn't sound irreverent. The experience clearly made me think of how much energy was expended in this Sunday football ritual and how the human heart, if it is not filled with the Spirit, will look for spiritual experiences that take one out of oneself.

Finally, I have to make a confession: it was great to see the Packers beat the Cowboys!

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