After hosting a fourth consecutive NFL-AFC championship game, Arrowhead Stadium turns off the lights of another exciting and entertaining season; what transpired there lingers as if a mystical ether captures its memories. Like the warning in Allen Field House at KU in Lawrence, “Pay heed all who enter…Beware of the Phog…”, there is a spirt dwelling within.
As a Catholic priest who values the significance of ritual liturgy, I’ll use this column to suggest that the ritual at football stadiums is not much different from that in churches. The best example, I think, takes place on the campus of Notre Dame University. The liturgy begins before the game when the announcer introduces the band by proclaiming, “The Fighting Irish!” as though announcing a marching army that liberates. The band is proceeded onto the field by the kilted guard. Before changes were made in the last decade, the guardsmen consisted of ten young men, each seven feet tall, i.e., they each had to measure at least 6’2” and the rest was made up by his decorative hat. Ten and seven are important religious numbers in the Catholic Church, pointing to the Ten Commandments and Seven Sacraments. To the accompaniment of over 77,000 cheering fans, the band moves to midfield using a characteristic high step. They face the opponent’s bench and play a brief version of that school’s song. The opposing team always faces west, symbolic of the region of darkness and evil, while the home team and fans face east where the sun rises and light shines onto our world. On signal, the marchers turn from darkness to light as the assembled congregation stands in unison to sing the greatest of all fight songs, “The Notre Dame Victory March.” Spectators become participants. The visiting band leader is invited to concelebrate by conducting The National Anthem. There are similar rituals performed at half time and after the game, e.g., team members tip their helmet to the student body (the twelfth man) and, arms around each other’s shoulders, they all sing “Notre Dame, Our Mother.” Similarly, the guardsmen do a victory dance—or alternate dance in the case of loss—and finally, everyone sings together the victory march. If the Irish win, it’s a symbol of dominance in battle (God over evil); if they lose, it’s sung as an eschatological act of faith and hope that the next and final battle will bring victory.
“Eschaton” refers to the end times, last things, and final judgment. It suggests that even when our season ends abruptly in loss, one game short of the big one, when the noise is silenced and the lights are dimmed, there is still hope: hope for next year and hope for the end of time. Chiefs’ kingdom is, in some ways, a reflection of God’s kingdom. The stadium is like a cathedral; it houses legends, heroes, and memories, like ecclesial sanctuaries house saints, martyrs, and prayers. Set up on a military model the church has structure, rank, and volunteers: fans and troops, commanders and coaches, warriors and linemen. Chants, costumes, drumbeats, fireworks, flyovers, a sea of red, a Hall of Fame, names that encircle the field—they tie us to our past and to the indwelling spirit. Hank Stram, Lamar Hunt, Len Dawson, Otis Taylor, and others that established great tradition for Kansas City football watch over the seasons and welcome others to leave their mark, as did Jim Lynch, Willie Lanier, Jan Stenerud, Bobby Bell, Marty Schottenheimer, Neil Smith, Tim Grundhard, and so many others through the years. During the past three weeks, we saw the last game of Big Ben Roethlisberger, the greatest playoff game ever featuring the Buffalo Bills, and the rise of the worst-to-first Super Bowl bound Bengals.
There is a sadness as the season is laid to rest, as the noise ceases, and the lights fade, but we know that whether triumph or defeat, believers are always oriented toward victory—if not this year, then next, and if not then, at the end of time.