From the Gospel of John:
[Jesus said,] “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 6:48-51 (NRSV) – February 4, 2014.)
Sunday, February 2, was significant for three things. It was the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, also called the Purification of Mary, also called Candlemas, a principal feast in the Christian faith and one that rarely falls on a Sunday. It was Groundhog Day, a very silly secular holiday in the United States and the inspiration for one of the more profound movies about personal growth and maturity, 1993’s Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. It was Super Bowl Sunday.
The National Football League’s Super Bowl is a really big deal. For reasons that have almost nothing to do with the quality of the football played in this alleged championship match, millions of people plan their lives (at least on that day) around this game even though it is typically not a very good game. This year’s match between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos was no exception; Seattle beat the crap out of the Broncos 43 to 8. Almost from the very first minutes, it was no contest. Nonetheless, millions of dollars changed hands, millions of people paid attention, and millions of other people were inconvenienced.
For all of my life as an ordained person, I have been aware of the Super Bowl’s effect on church attendance. The first parish I served as a priest was in the Pacific Time Zone and there I learned very early on that one does not schedule the annual membership business meeting on Super Bowl Sunday; you might not have enough people in church to constitute a quorum! Even now, when I minister with a congregation in the Eastern Time Zone where the game isn’t shown until the evening hours, I have come to expect low attendance; people are preparing either to host or to attend a Super Bowl party and (apparently) it takes more than eight hours to do so.
In commentary about the game this year, it has been suggested that one-third of the American populace watched all or a significant part of the game at home, at a Super Bowl party, or at their local sports bar. That would be more than 100 million people! In many of those commentaries, the term “bread and circuses” has been mentioned. This is a reference to a Latin expression from ancient Rome, panem et circenses, a phrase coined by the satirical poet Juvenal, who wrote
Already long ago,
from when we sold our vote to no man,
the People have abdicated our duties;
for the People who once upon a time
handed out military command,
high civil office, legions — everything,
now restrains itself and anxiously hopes
for just two things:
bread and circuses.
The reference is to the Roman practice, both republican and imperial, of gaining political power and keeping the masses in check by providing free wheat to the citizens, as well as costly entertainments, such as the circus gladiatorial games.
I don’t know, and in this space do not want to opine, whether the Super Bowl is, in fact, a “circus” offered by the leaders of our society to keep the population docile. I don’t want to opine here about the means, or failure of the means, by which society provides bread to those in need. But I am struck by today’s gospel reading and Jesus claim that he, his flesh, is the Bread which will let one live forever; in light of Sunday’s low turnout, one would have to admit that the Bread lost out to the circus.
The immediate gratification of the NFL circus — the parties and bar gatherings, the fun of cheering on one’s team, the camaraderie of the fans, the food, and the beer — is clearly more attractive than the gospel of eternal life. Why is that? I truly wish I knew. I’m not a sports fan and I don’t understand the attraction. But someone in the church needs to figure that out for the rest of us. Please. Soon.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.