By Frank Wessling
Sports can be very useful in making religious themes come to life.
Consider Pentecost, which we celebrated two Sundays ago. This is a major feast, the birthday of the Church when we remember that the first followers of Jesus were jump-started from fear into bold mission by the Holy Spirit. We may have seen imaginative paintings of the event in which the Apostles have a lick of flame on their heads while a dove hovers above them.
This is all very mysterious and good for creating a sense of wonder. But how do we folks in the pews connect with this divine energy in everyday life?
It might help to use a championship soccer team as a key.
The girls soccer team of Assumption High School in Davenport attended the 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony Church in that city on Pentecost Sunday with their coach. They were fresh from winning the Class 1A Iowa state tournament.
The first Scripture reading for that Mass, from the Acts of the Apostles, told of Jesus’ disciples receiving power together as they huddled waiting for the Spirit that would bring them new life. It told how they went out then and realized a wondrous unity as they expressed that life for others. Everyone understood them, people from different cultures and languages got the message, and a new form of communion began.
Those soccer players crowded into three pews in St. Anthony’s could identify with that easily. They understood how it is that a spirit of unity and mission can bring a disparate group together and marvelous things can happen.
Their coach may not think of himself as the Holy Spirit, but he does that kind of work, awakening a fire in these individual girls that makes them a team.
He’s also a model of the Apostles preaching in ways understood by a variety of peoples. He didn’t face Medes and Parthians and folks from Cappadocia, as the Apostles did; his mission was to people from differing psychological and spiritual countries. His words and behavior had to reach freshmen and seniors, a Bush, a Ripslinger, an Irmen, a Lunardi, a Flynn, and every other member of the team.
They all come from different places but they must hear the same message while absorbing it in their own unique way and expressing it in unity with their mates on the field. That’s the birth of a team, an expanding sense of love, and the beginning of championship joy.
The Church’s beginning must have felt something like that.
So the next time the Holy Spirit comes to mind, let a sports analogy go to work. St. Paul does it when he refers to a “race” for salvation. We can do the same.