The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.-John 1:5
There are people who say that soccer is a religion, and it meets my first litmus test of religion: when the question is asked, “Has it caused more harm than good?” there are compelling arguments on both sides, and neither is a clear winner. Religion is a blunt force that exposes the angels of our better natures as well as the devil inside each of us.
I don’t believe, however, that soccer is a religion (although I believe some people practice it that way). Soccer is, first and foremost, a language. It creates lineage and connection between strangers; allows us to ask and receive answers; opens a dialogue; offers a way to communicate. No sooner do I begin to speak this language than Audre Lorde’s words come to me, “These are the master’s tools, but I need them to speak to you.”
We cannot play the beautiful game without the master’s tools. When I began this project of writing Advent devotionals from the beginning of the World Cup to Christmas Eve, I hoped to learn how to live faithfully within massive systems of injustice. How to dismantle the system and dream new dreams and avoid hypocrisy and be good. The World Cup didn’t teach me this, but a lifetime of following Jesus has left me still learning, too.
Traditionally, John 1:5 is translated “the darkness has not overcome [the light].” However, the Greek work for overcome, katalambano, more commonly meant something like, “to lay hold of with the mind; to understand, perceive, learn, comprehend.” Some translations read, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended it.”
We take the master’s tools and we use them in ways that the system does not comprehend. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.” This line can feel reductionist, but as Berry goes on, he points us to the gospel Jesus taught us: “Do something every day that won’t compute…. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.” Play the beautiful game for the sake of play. Clown on the empire where you can. Invert the rituals that idolize the powerful.
Wendell Berry, Kylian Mbappe, the Iranian national football team, Stephanie Frappart, Tyler Adams, Walter Wink, Walid Regragui, Megan Rapinoe, Audre Lorde… these saints remind us that these are the master’s tools, but we can use them for liberation, for salvation, for love. This is what Jesus teaches us, too.
It takes more than repurposing the system’s tools to save ourselves. It also takes grace, love, and divine intervention. We cannot resolve the paradox of faithful living under empire, not in a lifetime. But we can shine in a way that the system does not comprehend. As we celebrate this new birth, we celebrate the child who, as much as anything, taught us to be incomprehensible, creative, loving, playful creatures. The light shines in the darkness, and the beautiful game continues.