The National Liturgy — The Super Bowl at XLIX

The National Liturgy — The Super Bowl at XLIX February 3, 2015

Those who watched the Super Bowl on Sunday took part in a national liturgy – that is, a public, communal sacred rite, in which more Americans participate at one televised event than at any other (on a mystical screen in the family shrine).

Don’t let anybody tell you this gathering is just for entertainment. At least not at “the high holy moments” when only seconds remain and the score is close, and both teams are fighting for the tiny lift of fortune that will waft them into victory. That is no time to cry out for chips or other nibblies. The attention of the devout is intense, “gripping” as some say, and the excitement is tangible. If fortune smiles toward one side, joy erupts, and on the other side the taste of ashes and the deep gloom of sudden death. The end of a close football game is not entertainment; it is experiencing life and death, vicariously.

And so you will see when walking through the parking lot afterward some with furrowed brows and some with exultation. Fortune has smiled on one side, and the winds of Being blow in their sails for yet another season. They have escaped death. Their team bears painful wounds, their lungs burnt sore from intensive breathing and ultimate effort. But the flush of triumph is on their cheeks.

I always like to watch the faces of players on the bench in the final minute. Both benches are alive with intensity and happy expectation one moment, and then on one side the excitement slinks away, skin sags, one sees the agony of death, the inescapable and now final cut upon the neck of the Sword of Damocles. Among men, the verdict of Fate is inescapable.

I have been to many joyous entertainments. But none other than this dramatization of dying and living has ever had such power to put me in depression, or fill me with the irrepressible exhilaration of victory – especially when death did cut so close, and yet we lived.

It could have been my team that lost. Instead, by the blowing breath of gods, WE won! WE won! It is such a communal victory for all who identified with their ritual representatives, our bruised and beat-up victims, whom we offered up in sacrifice. It may seem odd for a man my age, but (many times) I really have lived and died with “our boys.”

And they don’t really live just today, our team, they live outside of ordinary time. They don’t live, need I say, in eternity – but they do live in legend, their deeds will be inscribed in lectures fathers will tell their sons. Those were unforgettable heroic deeds they have witnessed. In the memory of universities and cities, these deeds shall live. Generations later some will bring them back to vivid memory.

My father told me how he had once seen Babe Ruth play in an exhibition game in Johnstown, PA, at the Point Stadium (the very Point where the furious waters of the flood of May 31, 1889, were stopped and spun violently back, and in the swirling waters some 2,000 people died before dawn). On his last trip to the plate, the Babe drove a ball so far past the 406-marker on the right-field wall that it was still rising into the sky as it cleared the wall.

So did I tell my kids. So may they tell theirs.

On Sunday, many must have noticed the difference between “sacred time” and “plain ordinary time.” By rule, a football game must last exactly sixty minutes, not a second more, not a second less. But anybody participating Sunday had to allow about four hours, before getting to the final whistle. Sacred time is what happens during those precious sixty minutes that are the only ones that count. Ordinary time is spent in ordinary entertainment, watching the cavalcade of people all around, a few of whom in every stadium are unsteady on their feet and a bit scary in their behavior. Some of whom are very good looking, and beautifully dressed.

I have heard experts say that each football play lasts on average less than six seconds, and there are only about 140 plays per game. Multiply those through. Now tell me, why are those guys so tired and beaten up from such little time in action?

True, a prescribed number of seconds is allowed between plays, during which the players stand in an oval, patting each other’s backsides. Still, the dramatically intense seconds during which twenty-two over-sized, over-muscled, and over-hardened guys are pushing each other around with all their strength – and with all the precision and intensity they can muscle up – make up in violence what they lack in duration.

Up to here, this post was completed an hour before game time of Super Bowl XLIX. What is written below was completed an hour after the game ended, after the departure of our guests.

At half time, the score was 14-14. The third quarter was nearly all Seattle, which scored ten unanswered points to lead 24-14. The faces along the Seattle bench were exhilarated. There were only eight minutes left when Tom Brady at last completed a touchdown to start the long climb back, Seattle 24-New England 21.

It took until there were only 2:02 left when Brady led his team to a closing touchdown – 28-24, New England. The face of Brady was radiant with joy. The Seattle bench was worried. Amazingly, Seattle’s Russell Wilson led his team down the field to the New England 1-yard line, deliberately letting the clock run down.

With under six seconds left, Marshawn Lynch, ustoppable so far in this championship game (102 yards gained), was leaning to rush forward mightily.

The face of Tom Brady was dejected, resigned, utterly empty. Unaccountably, on the next play, Seattle does not call on the fierce, driving Lynch. Seattle passes.

Seattle had victory in its hand, its receiver arms outstretched. Then New England’s Malcolm Butler makes a desperate stride for the ball and forces into his own hands an “immaculate interception.”

The looks of life and death on both benches instantly switch into reverse. New England is stunned, startled, then exultant. Tom Brady is leaping in the air with disbelieving jubilation. On Seattle’s faces there is unexpected, total anguish.

The deepest beauty of football comes from Fortune’s whipping winds. The football itself was designed to introduce contingency and chance. So football’s liturgy is pagan, to be sure.

But it is also susceptible of a Jewish-Christian interpretation of the sudden reversals in God’s creation. Often victory, alas, does not go to the Just.

For New England fans, this night it did. Improbably, it did.

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