Day 24: What if There is Justice in the World?

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

-Luke 2:20

All good parties end and the guests disperse. Players and journalists and dignitaries filter out of Qatar as quickly as they arrived. The shepherds leave Bethlehem, having encountered God, and they go on their way, back to the poop-covered fields and grimy, oily-furred sheep. 

The shepherds cannot stop talking about what they witnessed. This retelling of what’s been heard and seen can be exhausting for outsiders. Let me tell you something you won’t understand, because I don’t entirely understand it myself, but it has changed my life. This is part of the ritual of remembering, of sense-making. Long-time soccer fans love to recount the games that changed them, where they were when certain games took place. This final is a story we will retell strangers to explain who we are, where we were, why it mattered. The same thing the shepherds did to explain themselves, their joy, their awe.

I wonder if all the shepherds’ friends got annoyed at them for rehashing so much delight. I wonder how long the shepherds held onto that exquisite memory, if it remained shiny and special forever or if they had to work to recapture the magic of the moment.

 It is hard to go back to the ordinary after having witnessed magic. The shepherds return to their fields praising God, holding onto the memories.

Perhaps what is most stunning about this World Cup for soccer fans is that it was a fairy tale to watch Argentina win. Soccer fans are not used to receiving justice, in a sport where most scores turn on a single point, where the best team frequently fails to win. It seemed impossible that Messi could claim the trophy precisely because he’d failed to claim it–because the sport is cruel and capricious and we watch it in order to remind ourselves that life is unfair and justice is elusive and we are helpless against the indomitable force of FIFA and economic systems.

Until we aren’t. 

The shepherds, who roamed the hillsides raising the wool to clothe the Roman Empire, were not used to living in a just world, either. Having some small shred of evidence that perhaps the world is just and the good are rewarded and salvation will work itself out in our lifetimes–it’s revolutionary.

Of course, the shepherds will witness more injustice in their lifetimes. But they’ll hold onto this, perhaps the aged shepherds will be in the crowd when Jesus feeds the 5,000 decades later. Perhaps the shepherds will fall into ballooning debt and when someone takes their cloak they will hand over their shirt, too. Because they have glimpsed justice in the world, and so they fight for justice. 

A long-eared sheep with a bell around its neck gazes steadily, pensively into the camera.
Perhaps even a lowly sheep can bring more justice to the world.

Day 23: God Hates Scale (Kind Of)

On coming to the house, the Magi saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

-Matthew 2:11-12

The 2022 World Cup is built on a paradox: Global club football consolidates wealth in traditional white European powerhouses and is bad for the game, but global club football allows players to access merit-based playfields and build allyship relationships across countries and is good for solidarity and building coalitions of justice which, we hope, will one day tear down FIFA itself.

This paradox spins me in circles, like the Wise Men tracing a finicky star.

The Wise Men are in some ways throw-away characters, independently wealthy foreigners who dip into the plot just to ratchet up King Herod’s evil and highlight king Jesus’ omnipotence. And then they drop out of existence just in time to miss a massacre which, arguably, they caused. What the hell? Where is the moral? 

The Wise Men’s disappearance preserves the life of God Incarnate, but also causes a cascade of events that ends in the death of dozens (hundreds?) of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Were the Wise Men in the right? How do we reconcile the consequences? 

We live in a culture obsessed with doing everything “to scale”; this is what drives FIFA’s bull-headed move to expand the tournament in 2026. 

The more I read the Advent story this year, the more I hear Jesus’ birth as an argument against scale. Our ability to scale is so mismatched with our ability to perceive consequences. King Herod responds to the Wise Men by murdering baby boys at scale; Jesus does, eventually, bring down the Roman Empire and Herod’s kingdom, but only generations after Herod dies and Jesus dies, is buried, and resurrected. 

By whose hand does God’s kingdom arrive? In the Advent story, one faithful person’s choice cannot be disentangled from the other. There is no scale in Gospels, just a butterfly effect of justice arriving. 

It’s not that God hates scale; it’s that God does not ask us to scale. The Wise Men, in theory, have the power and resources to fund Jesus’ ministry from birth to untimely death. They could scale this story in another direction. But they do not stick around for Jesus’ life. 

They do their best to identify the right action, and are doubtless astounded by how the future spools out of their one decision to return by another road. It isn’t our job to scale; it is our job to do the next right thing. This is not a satisfying resolution to the paradox, but it is a faithful one.

Adoration of the Magi, by Andrew Walker (1959).

Day 23: Football, Our Embodied Salvation

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.

-Luke 2:7

Early in this series, I described football as an extension of my church community, the one place where we could explore and practice an embodied theology. The stunning ups and downs of yesterday’s final was a fine metaphor for a spiritual journey (if you’re an Argentina fan), but what I find myself holding onto is a new relationship with salvation. Let’s be clear: Messi is not a messiah and he has not worked out our salvation, but watching his total redemption changed the way I understand my own salvation.

Call me a cynic, but I was not expecting yesterday to see the greatest World Cup final of my lifetime. That’s what we got. As I wrote yesterday, I would not describe the game itself as a “joyful watching experience”–but contrary to my expectations, my joy was made complete at the conclusion, and I have never watched as much of a World Cup awards ceremony as I did yesterday.

It’s right there in Luke 2: Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth. The Western Christian church likes to think of salvation as something that happens exclusively to the soul, leaving the body behind among the broken things of this fallen world. Yet the Advent story makes it clear: salvation is complete, body and soul. Mary’s salvation–our collective salvation–comes through the chaotic, dirty workings of the body. There is no clearer way to include bodies in salvation than for God to incarnate into a body, and yet the Western church continues to argue that salvation is for souls only.

Watching Messi’s stunned face on the field, the sheer number of people he hugged (like a baptism), his physical collapse after Montiel’s game-winning penalty–it reminded me that God’s salvation is for the body and soul. Our salvation is worked out in our bodies, and is an embodied, fleshy experience.

We’re just a few short days from Christmas, and I’ll continue posting these daily reflections through Christmas Eve, as we make sense of what we have witnessed, what it means for us, and what we are called to because of Christ’s great love, which arrives even through the convoluted, corrupt structures of church and football.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, is like many Western paintings of the nativity, in that everyone is suspiciously clean and put together. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

In the Fields by Night: Daily Advent Devotions for a World Cup Season

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by the Word, and without it not one thing came into being….

-John 1:1-3 (NRSV, modified for nongendered pronouns)

Anyone who has been following the news for even a moment of the last decade, and happens to be watching the largest sporting event on the globe, begins with a disclaimer: “Well, FIFA can eat a dick, but I’m here for the beautiful game.”

More or less, but not necessarily, in those words. It’s a strange collision of events that the World Cup falls over the Christian season of Advent. As I prepare for the birth of Christ this year, I have never felt closer to the world in which Christ was born. A world in which we are all either sell outs or captives of the Empire which claims global loyalty and dominance. That is to say, I have never found a better metaphor for the Roman Empire than the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

But FIFA is not just a parallel for the government and culture that attempted and finally executed the murder of God’s Son. FIFA is also a direct descendant of the secularized, patronizing, self-aggrandizing form of the European church that formulated the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. Perhaps a milder form, but nonetheless a new force for justifying European economic and spiritual dominance. And so FIFA is also an apt metaphor for the modern institutional church, the necessary evil that we tolerate—or don’t—in search of a spiritual home.

In the beginning was the Word. A Word that preceded institutions and corruption and colonialism. In the beginning was the beautiful game. Like many, I fell in love with soccer as a kid who fell into sync with the rhythms of the ball, the players, and the satisfying whirr of a goal. I found something divine which I still believe lives somewhere within the institution.

A friend said recently that soccer is a religion, and he didn’t mean it kindly. He meant soccer fans treat the World Cup as though there can still be salvation in an institution that disregards humanity—we insist our paltry efforts to reform it justify our participation in it. I am guilty as charged.

This is why I am creating a daily devotional series for this Advent. As a former pastor who was shredded and burned out by the institution of church. As someone who returns to the pitch every week in search of a divine spark. As a person who stands in the fields at night and hears angels but is uncertain what they mean.

This Advent, I am searching for the Christ child who will be destroyed by the Empire. I am searching for ways to live faithfully as someone who has not yet been destroyed by the Empire. Join me through this World Cup and Advent for reflections on faith, hypocrisy, compromise, and—always—hope.

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1834, with apologies to Thomas Cole.