Culture At Large

Holy March Madness

Kendra Thompson

It all started when we moved to Lawrence, Kan., nine years ago. Before that, I cared nothing about college basketball. But there’s something about being connected, even just by proximity, to an unstoppable team. The University of Kansas had won the championship in 2008 and the whole town was proud. As for me and my husband, we relocated to Lawrence so he could earn his PhD at the school. I saw that mythical bird, the “Jayhawk,” on signs and merchandise, but I never imagined I’d be wearing it myself and rooting for seven-foot-tall demigods hanging from the rim after jaw-dropping slam dunks.

I grew up in nondenominational churches, so it wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized Lent wasn’t just for Catholics. Because of this newfound fascination, my first few observances were epic: I gave up coffee (won’t do that again), had my feet washed, sang repetitive Taize hymns, and sat in silence weekly. I had a wafer of Christ’s body smashed into my palm and teared up at the stripping of the altar while somber choir members crooned “Were You There?” In my first experience of Holy Week, I thought I was showing up for an ecumenical Good Friday worship service at the historic Cathedral of the Madeleine and ended up processing all over downtown Salt Lake City with a handful of faithful devotees and an eight-foot wooden cross.

What on earth do these two narratives have to do with one another? Well, it could just be coincidence. Both the NCAA college basketball tournament and Holy Week take place in the second half of March. But I think they have more in common than that.

Lent traditionally has been a season of the catechumenate. Historically, those seeking Christ would follow  a path of study and prayer over the 40 days of Lent and conclude this journey with a dunk in the baptismal waters at Easter mass. Jesus’ first Lenten journey, so to speak, was a sojourn into Jerusalem, anticipating his own trial and suffering, grieving the gradual elimination of his followers as he advanced closer to the cross.

The NCAA tournament starts out full of hope and fresh “disciples.” Within the 2018 madness we’ve already seen a few upsets, with teams like the Virginia Cavaliers out after the first round to a 16-seed team that previously was known for its academic rigor, not its athletics. When I watch the games, I find myself not only paying close attention to the players, but keeping an eye on the coaches, the mothers, and the spouses of coaches. Their body language says it all. I’ve watched tattooed players drop heads into their hands in defeat. At tense moments throughout the games, family members stare heavenward. Coaches pace and mutter. I wonder if any of them are mouthing the words, “My God, my God…”

I never imagined myself rooting for seven-foot-tall demigods hanging from the rim after jaw-dropping slam dunks.

The phrase “March Madness” did not always belong to the NCAA. It came out of the Illinois high school association basketball tournament, when one coach and educator, Henry V. Porter, described the “afflicted” sports fan in this way:

"In everyday life he is a sane and serious individual trying to earn enough to pay his taxes. But he does a Jekyll-Hyde act when the spell is on him ... The thud of the ball on the floor, the slap of hands on leather, the swish of the net are music in his ears ... He is biased, noisy, fidgety, boastful and unreasonable—but we love him for his imperfections ... The writer's temperature is rising. The thing is catching. It's got me! Gimme that playing schedule!"

In Jesus’ day, all sorts of interesting characters became his disciples. They weren’t sent off to rabbinical school or on desert retreats. Jesus just said, “Follow me,” and many went, swept up in a movement—sometimes not sure what to expect, but definitely leaving something behind.

Today we are still swept up in the movement of remembering Christ’s journey to the cross. Even the minimally pious show up to church on high holy days like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and, of course, Easter.  Maybe it’s kind of like a “holy madness,” an opportunity to “feel” our religion, not just in our heads but with our skin, our voices, even in the anxieties of our prayers.

I will likely always be a fair-weather basketball fan. I still only care about NCAA games for the three weeks of the tournament. But there’s something about getting caught up in the madness: the ritual of bracket-making, the justification for hitting up sports bars before they even serve lunch, even the vernacular it gives us to connect with others across political, socioeconomic, and religious divides.

Could both seasons point to the divine? I’d argue so. In Lent, with each day we are drawn closer to the crushing reality that we’ve crucified our God. And yet we are also faced with an impossible victory: that death did not win, that our God is raised in Jesus Christ. Likewise, watching college basketball invites us into a season of hoping in unlikely possibilities, marveling at upsets, and giving thanks to God for the connection we find as his people. This “madness,” too, has a touch of the holy.

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