On Sport and Sacrifice


February 4, 2020

The Feast of the Presentation recalls the old man Simeon chanting thanks for having lived to see the Messiah. His Nunc Dimittis—“Let thy servant depart in peace”—is part of the Church’s evening prayers. In 542 in Constantinople, the Emperor Justinian placed it into the Eastern Liturgy.

This year the Feast fell on Super Bowl Sunday. Human nature instinctively finds entertainment more compelling than edification, but like all things ephemeral, games pass away while the songs of saints will endure until the end of time. Few today remember the Isthmian games of the Greeks, or the cheers in the Roman circus. But those games also warn thinking people of the dangers in giving sports a cultic status. When the amateur is overwhelmed by professionals who are paid mind-boggling salaries, inflating the cost of tickets, and whose lives and deaths distract from the great events of the day, a culture’s perspective becomes irrational.

Add to this the “ad verecundium fallacy,” by which people accept the unqualified opinions of individuals simply because of their celebrity. This applies to sports figures and Hollywood starlets who turn entertainment into political theatre.

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The aforementioned Justinian had to deal with this problem. He and his empress Theodora were not the only couple who have rooted for opposite teams; however, their situation was serious, since the teams represented political and religious factions. Theodora was a fan of the Greens, who were Monophysite heretics, and the emperor supported the Blues, who were orthodox Chalcedonians. No one who collects abstruse sports statistics should object that these theological issues are too obscure. Feelings were so intense in 532 that the “Nika Riots” (Nika being the term for “Victory,” now adapted for Nike sneakers, made mostly in third-world countries under disputed labor conditions) led to the deaths of 30,000 rioters and the destruction of much of the city.

Super Bowl half-time extravaganzas surpass in their vulgarity only the Field of the Cloth of Gold games in France in 1520 when Henry VIII, twenty-nine years old and an impressive 6’1” wrestled Francis I, twenty-three years old and over 6’5”. Thousands of tents were erected for the crowds, and for refreshments there were 3,000 sheep, 800 calves, 300 oxen, and fountains flowing with wine. Even the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I donated for entertainment dancing monkeys painted gold.

During the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.) the Greeks built a gymnasium at the base of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Even some Jewish priests of the Herodian temple succumbed to the sports mania. Should any pulpit orator have tried to beguile his congregation on the Feast of the Presentation with banter about the Super Bowl, let him be reminded: “Disdaining the temple and neglecting the sacrifices, [the priests] hastened, at the signal for the discus-throwing, to take part in the unlawful exercises on the athletic field” (2 Maccabees 4:14).

Editor’s note: this column was adapted from Fr. Rutler’s weekly parish newsletter, with gracious permission from the author.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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