Day 18: If a Census Should be Taken

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

-Luke 2:1-3

If FIFA was some kind of Caesar Augustus that required players to travel to the country of their birth for a census, 59 players would travel to France, representing 10 countries. FIFA has complicated rules for national team eligibility. Players have long represented countries they were not born in; but as soccer benefits from the twin forces of legalized child trafficking through youth academies and global migration (especially between former colonies and their colonizers), questions of nationality become increasingly complicated. This maze of qualification results in scenarios like brothers Inaki and Nico Williams playing for two different countries, Ghana and Spain, respectively.

FIFA also has a somewhat unique definition for “country,” counting Scotland, Palestine, and Puerto Rico, among the nations eligible to play at the World Cup (should they qualify). Under FIFA’s rules, not only would Judea be a nation, the tiny semi-autonomous kingdom nominally ruled by Herod, so would Rome, Galicia, Corinth, and practically all of Paul’s geo-nomously titled letters. The mind is boggled.

To complicate matters further, once a player chooses–as an adult–to represent a country, it is incredibly difficult to switch allegiances. Part of the intrigue of the World Cup is the way players navigate national identities. The angst of Lionel Messi’s career is the accusation that he is more Spanish than Argentinian. Timothy Weah plays for the United States, but his father played for Liberia. Former French team captain Patrice Evra described sending the French and Algerian flags to current (out on injury) French player Karim Benzema, because you are always loving both, even if FIFA will only ever recognize you as belonging to one nation. 

Under FIFA’s rules, Jesus the son of Mary would be eligible to play for Judea (his mother’s  country), Egypt (where he lived as a child), and the Roman Empire (although he would not qualify for Roman citizenship because Rome was racist and practiced ethnicity-based discrimination). Is there theological significance to Jesus’ FIFA eligibility? 

Depends how you define “significance.” Surely God Incarnate could have simplified God’s national identity if God wanted to. God could have shoehorned Jesus’ birth under King David and been God Incarnate of a simple geo-religious-ethnic identity. 

Viewing Jesus’ identity through the lens of FIFA eligibility recontextualizes the geography of the Bible and recontextualizes contemporary conversations about race, migration, and identity. It binds together past and present, exposing the way national identities across colonial relationships ensnare and liberate, how oppressors and oppressed are bound together in inextricable ways, in the present and the ancient past. God’s kingdom makes space for the multiplicity of identity, and requires no declaration of single national allegiance.

Johannes Kepler's 1627 map of the work.
While Johannes Kepler did create this map, his FIFA eligibility remains unclear.

Day 17: Comfort, Comfort, O My Fourth Best Team in the World

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from God’s hand
double for all her sins.

-Isaiah 40:1-2

What is true today is that by 4pm Eastern Standard Time–4:50pm at the latest–one nation will be elated and one will be in tears. 

We love this game because there is a loser. And we care about the loser because they are sad, because grown men cry, because after carrying the entire tournament in their bodies, it collapses upon them. US soccer star Megan Rapinoe describes professional football as an extension of the entertainment industry, and it is true, we are entertained by this sadness. Sometimes we revel in it; sometimes we are crushed by it. If the loser shrugged and hugged the winner and said, “well, it’s just a game, I’m still in the top 10% of global earners, how bad can my life be?” we would be disappointed.

Because we live in a culture that hushes sadness behind closed doors, there is something cathartic in the way the cameras pan across the high-definition tears of the losers. Football is a container for feeling the full range of human emotions, publicly, without judgment. 

Comfort, comfort. When England lost to France after Harry Kane missed his second penalty kick, there was plenty of derision directed at Harry Kane. But there was also a rush to comfort: of course it wasn’t Kane’s fault, we all would have picked him to take the penalty.

When Marquinos’ shot bounced off the post and collapsed Brazil’s hope for a World Cup run, it was crushing. How painful to have the post–not even the goalkeeper, the post!–have the final word on your hopes. A shoot out can make any team sympathetic. 

The World Cup allows us to practice grief and to practice comfort. 99% of competitors end up losers. Comfort, comfort. The beauty of this passage is that the prophet calls us not to deny pain, but accompany it. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”–honor the sorrow of this moment. This is the end of the hard service, the beginning of transformation. Not the erasure of sorrow, but the long, slow transformation of it, even it takes from Isaiah all the way Luke, almost a quarter of the Bible. Comfort, comfort. We’ve got four long years just for comforting.

A photo of Harry Kane on the sub bench, mouth slightly open, eyes wide, as if something very concerning is happening in front of him.
Don’t you feel a little bad for the guy? Just a little? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 16: Because of Tender Mercy

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before God to prepare a way,
to give God’s people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

-Luke 1:76-79

Zechariah can sing. His song barely registers in our memories, outshined by Mary’s awe-inspiring Magnificat. But when he finally gets his voice back and sings to his baby John, he knows how to sing. 

If Zechariah is the guy who you don’t like to watch and you never want to play with, it’s not because of his lack of skill. He’s a skilled player. He just makes the wrong decisions in the clutch. And he happens to be on the field with Mary the Mother of God, who’s sort of a Marta figure. She’s just the best. It’s hard to watch anyone else when Mary is in the story. Sometimes, what makes a character forgettable is that they stand next to the greatest who ever did it. 

While Mary sings for her own, brilliant victory, Zechariah sings for his son. It’s a strange hope for his child: to teach the people about salvation and prepare a way for God. Perhaps he regrets this when John takes up the locust-eating lifestyle. 

Zechariah also speaks of the mercy of God. Having recently spent 9+ months unable to speak because of his unkindness to an angel, perhaps Zechariah is acutely aware of God’s mercy. The rising sun that shines on those living in darkness and the shadow of death is close to his heart. Or perhaps the shadow of death is particularly visible now that he is a parent. Zechariah is in awe, and he knows how to sing.

I’m usually cynical of the players who make religious gestures before they step on the field. It seems like a crude reduction of faith to God-is-on-my-side-ism. But there is also something admirable about the players who invoke God, who contextualize their work within their pursuit of a faithful life. Do you, in your ordinary life, offer a prayer before beginning your work day? There’s something more than triumphalism in this small act–God accompanies the player onto the field, not to win or to lose or to prove righteousness, but to guide their feet in the path of peace, regardless of the result of the game.

A busy birthing scene from a medieval painting, with women hovering around the mother and child, angels singing above, and Zechariah's beard and shoulders just visible on the right side of the frame.
In Jacopo Tintoretto’s 1563 painting The Birth of St. John the Baptist, Zechariah is struggling to even get half his body included in the painting.

Day 15: Morocco, Magnificat, Caveat

God has shown strength with an outstretched arm;
God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
 The Creator has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

-Luke 1:52-54 (edited for inclusive pronouns)

Apparently the Mother of God is a fan of the Moroccan football team. Yesterday, Morocco celebrated their first trip to a World Cup semifinal, the first African nation and the first Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal. The lowly are lifted up. Our souls are filled with joy.

Podcast host and actor Brendan Hunt recently observed that the greatest predictor of whether a team reaches semifinals is whether they have been to a semifinal before. The last time a team reached the semifinals that had never been to a semifinal before was in the year 2002, two-thirds of Jesus’ lifetime ago. In that tournament, South Korea and Turkey both advanced and played a stunning third place game that was a formative moment in the summer before high school (coincidentally, the same summer I was called to be a pastor). The World Cup is stacked in favor of the winners, down to the design of the draw spreading out the top 7 teams during the group stage.

A happy Moroccan woman with a green star on her right cheek, wearing a green hijab and red top, lifting 2 fingers as she grins at the camera.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 Notably, Morocco is the team with the greatest number of players born outside the country they represent, with more than half born outside its borders. This includes the great penguin dancer Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid to Moroccan parents, trained in the youth academy at Real Madrid, and now playing for PSG. Over half the Moroccan team plays in Europe. Morocco’s success is inextricable from the greed of the Eurocentric neocapitalist sports entertainment industry. As Michael Moore said in the 2005 film Bowling for Columbine, “they’ll sell you the rope to hang themselves if they think they’ll make a buck on it.” The European club soccer empire has hung themselves and made a buck on it. 

Most likely, the empire will rise to rule us again. But for now, we glimpse an upside down world in which this tournament really, truly, is for everyone. It is the whole world’s game.

We love the image of the powerful brought down from their thrones–not only because we have never seen Cristiano Ronaldo’s features in exactly that expression, but because the loss of the powerful is inextricable, in Mary’s song, from care for the marginalized. Excess is erased and sufficiency abounds. 

Morocco’s win reignites the hope that we can transform that Babylon of governance, FIFA. It also gives us hope, at least symbolically, that FIFA may yet be pressured to compensate the families of workers who died to create this tournament and its idolatrous temples. 

The underdog’s win feels so good because it is as Mary said. We don’t tear down the powerful from their thrones for the sake of tearing them down, but because it is a prerequisite for filling the hungry with good things, for restoring the most basic of dignities to the most marginalized of communities. May it be so.

A crowd of about 60 Moroccan football fans standing shoulder to shoulder in rows, in what appears to be stadium seating. All the fans are standing, and one row holds a set of gold, inflatable letters that read MOROCCO.
Moroccan fans in 2018 now have even more reason to celebrate (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Day 14: Don’t Question Angels

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

-Luke 1:19-20


My eyes were already back on the TV as I hit send, and the reply was almost instant: “That’s exactly what I just yelled at my TV.”

In most moments in soccer, it is better to be unselfish, to make the good pass, to find the person with the best angle to move toward the goal. There are 11 players on the team and so, it stands to reason, being selfish is a bad idea most of the time (even if, I would argue, you are a superstar, hello Messi with the assist to Molina). There are moments to be unselfish. But there are also moments when you are handed a gift and you say, “thank you very much” and drive it into the back of the net. 

I won’t name names (DePaul), but Argentina had at least one of these moments in their nail-biting penalty kick victory over the Dutch yesterday. When someone hands you a gift, say “thank you very much” and drive it into the back of the net.

Zechariah does not get much credit in the advent story–probably because he spends almost a year unable to speak–but he has a weirdly long and detailed story. Zechariah appears in this highly descriptive encounter with the angel Gabriel, again at the birth of John the Baptist, and following the birth, he has a whole praise song, a sort of reprise of Mary’s Magnificat in a masculine voice. Joseph–the presumed father of Jesus–doesn’t get his own song. Zechariah spends plenty of playing time, but we remember him as an early sub who barely makes an impact on the play.

What makes Zechariah forgettable is that he is the guy who is handed a gift and takes one too many touches. He questions whether this is too easy, he looks for the pass when he has a wide open goal, he misses his moment. We’ve all been there, turning an easy yes into an over-digested “who, me?” Sometimes, good news is just good news.

I don’t really believe in the soccer gods, but I do believe in divine gifts. When someone hands you the thing you always wanted and makes it look easy in a way that belies the decades you worked for it and makes you question everything you ever believed–shoot the damn ball. Don’t ask why the goal is wide open now. Don’t question divine gifts. 

Accept the gift, and let the moment be divine and incomprehensible and everything you dreamed.

William Blake’s 1799 painting The Angel Appearing to Zacharias. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 13: Stumped by a Stump

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

-Isaiah 11:1-3

Sometimes, I wonder what is even the point of it all. Sometimes is today. I am in a sour mood as I am sick, away from home, and irrationally worried about my underdog teams losing in the quarterfinals ( as much as you can consider the usual stacked powers underdogs). I’m exhausted and unable to see the people I came to see, and on top of that, I’ve submitted my moods to what happens in 90 minutes between men I don’t know from countries I’ve never lived in.

I am not in the mood for Advent hope. Which is perhaps the best pathway into Advent hope: hope against hope. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. It is December and I live in Michigan, so I’ve forgotten what a shoot even looks like. I am stumped by this new vision of the stump.

In 2018, the World Cup led me to a new group of soccer players and I began to play regularly for the first time in more than a decade. That shift led me to the theological conviction that the most beautiful form of the beautiful games is what exists on unmarked fields among neighborhood players. We praise the elite players and admire their skills, but what they do is the airbrushed version of what belongs to the ordinary and the marginalized.

A shoot will come up from the stump. The thing I am waiting for will not meet me on Dec. 18 at 10:00am Eastern. I will catch a tiny glimpse of it when I return home to my familiar field and our last pick up games of the year on a near-frozen field. But that is not it, either. The hope I am seeking is a tiny shoot, is just beginning to grow in my life in ways that will terrify and save me. Because salvation is terrifying.

The frustrating thing about hope is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for wallowing. I’d like to be sick and wallow and sulk. But the beautiful game is about to begin–somewhere, not yet, but eventually. I am committed to a God who is working all things for good and so, begrudgingly, I hope.

A shoot comes forth from regular, ordinary dirt.

Day 12: The Prophet Came Preaching

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’

-Matthew 3:1-3

The man who wore camel hair clothes and who ate locusts and honey was certainly disruptive in ancient Judea. Eventually, he ends up dead for criticizing King Herod’s incestuous marriage. But for now, he is growing up, leaving his mother Elizabeth and father Zechariah behind, and spreading rebellious ideas to the impoverished rural populace. But the kingdom tolerates a certain amount of dissent. Any expansive empire knows dissent is easier minimized than eliminated. 

In the Portugal vs. Uruguay group stage game on Nov. 28, North American broadcasts included a blur of blue-shirt racing across the pitch and the ref balling up a gay pride flag that the protester left on the field. Later, images appeared of the protester’s shirt, which read “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian Women” on the back.  It was a strange but not unheard of disruption. 

The protestor, Mario Ferri, is an Italian minor league footballer who has made numerous pitch invasions since 2009. Initially, his protests were critiques of the Italian national coach, but evolved over time to human rights messages. Perhaps strangest of all is how the game has evolved to make room for him. He broke onto the field in 2010 and 2014. After he was tackled and taken into custody in Qatar, he reported that FIFA President King Herod arrived within 30 minutes to ensure his release, reminiscent of how Herod had previously shielded John the Baptist because he was “afraid of the people.” Afterwards, Ferri gave positive reviews of the Qatari police, noting that they offered him coffee and a croissant. John the Baptist left no record of croissants among the Roman guards.

The metaphor of Ferri-as-John-the-Baptist doesn’t reach very far (and Infantino-as-Herod extends only slightly farther). I don’t believe Ferri is preparing the way for Christ or is a prophet in the traditional sense. But his behavior echoes the prophetic, and reminds us that the empire will tolerate creative disruption. There are multiple forms of protest, beyond the Boycott FIFA movement which continues. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what would happen if more of us protested as Ferri did. 
Preparing the way for Christ can take many forms. We can take cues from both John the Baptist and Ferri, carving out space for counternarratives in the empire. It is strange, sometimes dangerous, but Ferri’s habit of eating locusts and honey on the field begs for reflection. What are you doing to carve out space for counternarratives within the empire?

As 1 Corinthians 12 says, there are a variety of protests but the same spirit. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 11: Every Messiah has a Genealogy

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.

-Matthew 1:1-2

I love a good genealogy. A good, long, tedious phonebook of names that take you from the past into the present. I love the dry list that opens the book of Matthew, locating Jesus–the fresh new legs with so much promise–at the end of a long line of greats (which include both men and women). Reminding us that the kid may impress, but the kid doesn’t come from nowhere. It matters that the kid is shaped by and connected to those who came before. A savior does not emerge ex nihilo, but is someone who carries their history and lineage with them.

Football, like all modern sports, is a game of the moment. In the World Cup, every day a star is born, sometimes two, only to be washed away by the next day’s successes. We leap from present to present, letting the games blur and fade in memory. 

That is why it was so profound when, at the end of Brazil’s rout of South Korea, they unfolded a banner wishing Pele well as the 82-year-old legend faced down COVID and cancer. It would be easy for the stars to keep the spotlight on the urgency of now, but instead, they turned back, reminding the world that there was a time when Brazil was not an immortal favorite to win the cup. There was a time, in 1958, where a 17-year-old named Pele was just some kid off the streets in the Brazilian equivalent of Nazareth.

This gesture connected across time, team, and lineage. As if to say, we know who we are because we know our history. Much like the Seleção’s recognition of Pele, Matthew’s list of generations roots us in a deeper story. The heroes we look at today stand not just on the shoulders of giants, but on the shoulders of humans, with their own mistakes and shortcomings and failures. When we are tempted to put the newest, youngest hero on a pedestal (I see you, Ramos), these lineages also remind us that no one is superhuman. These heroes will make mistakes, they will age and become ordinary, and if we treat them as gods we do a disservice to ourselves and to them. 

Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, Hamm, Henry, Zidane, Messi, [insert your favorite of the moment here]. The past matters. To forget the past is to forget that the game (and the world) has always been beautiful, with or without us there to witness.

Pele leaning to the left of a soccer ball as a Swedish player stands behind his right shoulder, looking intently at the ball.
Pele during the 1958 World Cup final against Sweden. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 10: Leaping Inside the Womb

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

-Luke 1:41-42

I am sad to say goodbye to the tenacious Japanese team, which scored the second-strangest goal in the World Cup (dropping into the runner up slot only after Haji Wright’s physics-defying goal against the Netherlands). But I will miss the Japanese fans as much as the players. The fans with their costumes and drums and cheers, who tune their bodies to their players as if trying to add their energy from stands into the bodies on the field.

I heard someone say once that we are all trying to find our way back to our first home in the womb. That’s why we love things that cradle us: hammocks, rocking chairs… football stadiums. Bear with me. To be a fan inside the gentle curve of a stadium, surrounded by the white noise of other bodies, is a womb-like experience. It connects you to something bigger than yourself but fully inside your body.

I wrote earlier that football was the best tool my church had for teaching embodied theology, and that is true for fandom as well as players. Being a fan accounts for the body, something the Western church has struggled to do for centuries, in spite of worshiping a God who put on a body. Perhaps that is why sports have usurped church participation so thoroughly in the past few decades (but that’s a discussion for another day). 

Elizabeth’s exclamation to Mary is stunning because of the way so many bodies perceive and sync with each other at once: Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby, Mary, Mary’s baby. How the bodies are connected and separate and coordinated and aware of and echoing each other’s joy. It is unbelievable, but just barely, as we all know the feeling of our body shifting in relation to someone else’s. Your joy is so complete it becomes our joy. 

We don’t need our churches to be football stadiums, but we need churches that recognize and celebrate bodies. Churches that encourage us to physically leap into each other’s joy, rather than sitting still in stiff pews. As Elizabeth said, we already know we are blessed when our bodies are attuned to joy.

A colorful 1503 painting in which Mary stands, leaning into the face a shorter Elizebeth. Two of their hands are clasped, while Elizabeth's other hand reaches to pull Mary into an embrace and Mary rests a hand on her chest as if catching her breath.
Mariotto Albertinelli’s Visitation, which looks curiously like some goal celebrations we’ve seen recently.

Day 9: When All Evidence is Hidden

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

Luke 1:39-40

If you have never read the conception of Jesus as a queer story, it’s probably because Mary seems straight–and straightness was always enough for you. But there are ways to read queerness in the annunciation story, and queer people do. Mary’s immaculate conception draws parallels for lesbian couples using artificial insemination. Mary’s run to Elizabeth can be read as a lesbian love scene. The angel Gabriel can be read as a genderfluid or intersex messenger. 

You could argue this is poor biblical interpretation, since there’s no evidence of queerness in the Advent stories. But the lack of evidence is precisely why we read these stories as queer stories: all evidence of queer love has been erased from the Bible (with the possible exception of David and Jonathan). Most likely Mary and Elizabeth were not lesbian lovers, but if Mary stopped to visit her lesbian lover on her way to Elizabeth, she would have “held these things in her heart,” as she did throughout these events. We read queerness back into the heterosexist stories we received because we are confident that God loves queer people and that their presence in the narrative is critical to our collective salvation. 

Amidst all the criticism of Qatar’s treatment LGBTQ+ people, not much has been made of the fact that are no openly gay players among the 830 or so footballers competing in the tournament. Compare that to 38 out players in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. We can recognize the reasons why male athletes may have a greater pull to conceal their sexual orientation. But we cannot, in good faith, believe that there are no gay players in the tournament in Qatar. Instead, it appears that all evidence of gay players has been erased. 

In moments–touches between players on the sidelines, the occasional gesture during a goal celebration–I imagine certain players are gay. But I cannot say for sure; instead, I read queerness where I can in the World Cup. FIFA locating the World Cup in Qatar signals to these men that they must continue to uphold traditional masculinity. They must continue to hide all evidence. Even straight players in solidarity are forced to hide evidence of allyship

Yesterday, the US Men’s Team posted several photos of brokenhearted players embracing their girlfriends. Their sorrow was public and sympathetic only in the context of heterosexuality. What would it take for a gay player to come out, even on the national team of a country that is in the process of enshrining gay rights into law? 

Perhaps, if we are lucky and if we create a safe world, the week after the tournament one or two players (most likely on the championship team) will come out. Perhaps, a generation from now, we will still be reading queer fictions into this tournament because the evidence remains hidden. If so, that would be a sin against the God who created and called each of these players.