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Going Beyond Rivalry

Anthony Mathison - published on 02/04/13

The revelation of man’s innate need for community through sport

Each year, millions of Americans gather together to watch the Super Bowl, the annual championship extravaganza of the National Football League. This year was no different, and as before families and friends huddled close to the television to see the final outcome of months of national football games. From the outside looking in, it may be easy for one to see this as merely an exercise in the love of sports and friendly competition. Nevertheless, the way the Super Bowl is celebrated across the nation reminds us of our basic need for community. The Catholic Church, having long existed before the first Super Bowl, teaches us that we as human beings are social creatures and that community is a part of our nature.

Community ultimately is the sharing of our lives and our very selves with one another. Unfortunately, it is the case that mainstream culture has, to a large extent, been gutted of any true sense of “community,” reverting instead into a network of atomized individuals. By and large, we are concerned only about our own affairs and advancements, even if we are in contact with others. True community reminds us that we are not simply self-absorbed machines; we belong to each other in a fundamental way. In fact, we need this type of community as it provides us with psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits. Faith and science both have confirmed that as a reality. As a result, we gravitate towards community by our very nature, and there are few examples more prevalent of this need for community than the Super Bowl.

The typical Super Bowl party brings friends and families together for food, fun, and interaction. Eating together is one of the most ancient signs of community. When we gather together to eat, we do more than simply nourishing our physical bodies – we nourish one another spiritually by our presence and unity around the same table. In this reality, we see traces of the Eucharist, which is the ultimate expression of unity as the Biblical “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42). Drink often plays a major role in Super Bowl gatherings, as well; everyone who has participated in one of these celebrations has witnessed two friends sitting side by side, enjoying a refreshing beer. In Sacred Scripture, wine is spoken of highly as a gift from God designed to “gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15). Indeed, when their use is properly ordered, the fruit of the vine (or of the barley, as the case may be) is a powerful way to forge community. These gatherings are also marked by a spirit of leisure and diversion (or, at least, that is the goal). The sport itself, the jokes, the entertaining commercials, and the camaraderie all inspire joy in our hearts. We forget, if only momentarily, our individual problems and issues, finding instead comfort in the presence of each other.

And in addition to the camaraderie enjoyed by millions upon millions spectators from around the country (or for some events, around the globe), sport has the power to enliven and strengthen a sense of community in an even more concrete way. Every year, fans of the two playing teams array on their respective sides to cheer their home team on to victory. The bond is particularly strong for those who are residents of the city or state represented by either team, and the outcome will inevitably either lead to either jubilant celebration for the victors or dejection for the losers. Why? The answer helps to demonstrate the interplay between our individual selves and the dynamic of community. St. Augustine of Hippo famously wrote: “You have made us for yourself [O God], and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Each and every one of us longs for God; to know him and share in the eternal giving and receiving of love with him. This vocation is found in baptism and communion with Christ’s Church. Yet, mankind does not always respond to our inner restlessness in the intended way. Instead, we often make idols and seek purpose and fulfillment in them rather than in God, who is the source of our gladness.

Of course, for most fans, the Super Bowl and the teams therein are not idols in the ancient sense. With the possible exception of some die-hard fans, most who root for one team or the other do it in good fun and generally get over it if their team loses. Nonetheless, within this dynamic, however small, we glimpse mankind’s search for something to fight for, to believe in – to commune with. The fervor often demonstrated by fans reflects our own fervent desire (whether it is consciously known to us or not) to serve God and to unite together in the Church. It is but a flicker of this much more profound reflection of reality, and yet it impels toward unity, toward that desire for community which is innate within every heart.

Sound farfetched? Let’s take a look: First, the initial loyalty to one team or another reflects our need to serve a purpose greater than ourselves. Man was made for love and to love, by he who is Love itself, and in whom we find the truest source of loyalty. For the saints, God and the Church were that “team” for which they lived their lives (and, in the case of many, the team for which they willingly surrendered their lives, as well). Second, the manner in which we celebrate mirrors in some ways the communal life in the Body of believers – the Church. As Christians, we gather together at least once a week around the altar of God to partake of the Supper of the Lamb. By consuming the most holy Eucharist, we announce through action our communion with one another, and in a most intimate way, our communion with God. We gather together to participate in the salvific drama of the Paschal Mystery, which is presented anew each day on our altars before our very eyes. Finally, by gathering together in community within the Church, we unite our individual selves with our brethren. The walls of our self-centeredness are broken down and all become one in the liturgy. Our individuality and community meet and are united in “one body, one spirit in Christ.”

We were not created to be self-centered and live only for ourselves. Quite the contrary, we are called to know, love, and live for God in the community of the Church. This intrinsic part of our human identity expresses itself in many seemingly mundane ways, and the Super Bowl is no exception. 

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