Gridiron Liturgy

I recently went to a professional football game in Kansas City. What struck me most about the whole affair was that for the tens of thousands there it so much seemed an act of worship. In fact, pieces of liturgy were scattered just about everywhere.

The climax of the pro football seasons begins in Advent, just like the church year itself, and the playoffs come in Epiphany. Even the anticipatory waiting of Advent was there, stuck as we were in non-moving traffic, miles of it, for as long as it would take to play half of the game. On arrival, we parked in the usual spot and shared parking lot community with other pilgrims. Fans from both teams broke bread together, poured many libations, and stood in line. The standing in line was to discard the libation, however, not to receive it. Kansas City, they say, does tailgating (communion) better than any other.

In due time, we entered the sanctuary where the barriers between believer and non-believer became obvious. Chiefs fans, of course, wore the signature red of the KC franchise. Without proper clothing, Bronco fans were relegated to nose bleed seats unless, as in my case, accompanied by cordial Chiefs devotees.

The call to worship was led by the KC Wolf, the mascot who forthwith claimed victory over the helpless “Village People” dressed as Broncos. The national anthem provided the hymn of praise that was duly followed by a noisy, organ-like fly-over of a stealth bomber. The team’s theme song served as a Gloria. By now the congregation was in a worshipful frenzy without regard for time or decorum.

The public address announcer even offered a prayer of confession on behalf of a few Broncos players who had sinned by insulting the Chiefs. The confession by proxy was not followed by any sort of absolution.

Team captains gathered for a coin toss. “Call it in the air” . . . “Heads” . . . “It’s tails” . . . “The Chiefs receive.” It sounded like a prayer for illumination.

The game provided lots of words. If there was a particularly good word, the fans would pass the peace. After a touchdown came the obligatory high-five, embrace, shout with joy, and anointing of one another with communion elements, again without regard for decorum or time. The exultation was deafening. Chiefs fans did not pass the peace to me, however, for I was improperly dressed and was, Broncos fan that I am, not welcome at their table any longer. In the end, I was on the losing side.

There seemed to be no benediction. People just left. And furthermore, as sports fans know well enough, blessing is always elusive and, at best, momentary. In this arena, as everywhere on the earth sooner or later, you lose. Happily, though, in worship of the God of creation and redemption, of wisdom and justice, of patience and comfort, in holy Trinity, there is blessing forever and ever.

Harlan Van Oort is chaplain at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.