Winners, Losers and the Wisdom of God

by Mark Gordon

As a fan of the New England Patriots, I am not immune to the pagan magnetism of Super Bowl Sunday. Unlike the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving, days most of us spend focused on family, the Super Bowl is truly America’s high holy day – the one moment each year when we all come together in a vast liturgical celebration of what we most long to be: winners. Though my team was not playing this year, I spent the two preceding weeks listening to sports talk radio, and on Sunday I tuned in to watch nearly the entire broadcast, including the extensive pre-game coverage. The entire spectacle was on view, as usual: the Via Sacra of Super Bowl Boulevard, the handsome celebrities and preening politicians, the ersatz patriotism, the heart-tugging commercials, and the procession of players into MetLife Stadium. There was the grandiose halftime show, the arrival of the mystical Lombardi Trophy, the euphoric coronation of the victors, and the ritual banishment of the losers. And then, suddenly, the gauzy dénouement, when the awful truth sets in that the football season is over, leaving nothing but baseball until late summer.

But Sunday wasn’t just about the Super Bowl; it was also the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. At my parish, we welcomed a guest celebrant: Fr. Michael Marigliano, a Capuchin friar. Fr. Michael pointed out that in stark contrast to the Super Bowl, all the figures in the Presentation narrative would have been considered losers in their historical context: Simeon, an odd old man obsessed by a private revelation; Anna, an elderly widow who spent her nights huddled in dark corners of the temple; Joseph and Mary, making their way across the temple courtyard with their pitiful two pigeons. And the forty day-old Jesus, the speechless Word of God, soon to be a refugee hunted by Herod’s death squads. Taken together, the five of them didn’t amount to much – losers in the world’s calculus of success and failure, without power, wealth, fame, or nobility.

In 1990, during an address to the American Humanist Association, media magnate Ted Turner famously called Christianity “a religion for losers.” Turner later apologized, but his declaration has been echoed by worldly wisdom since our Lord walked among us.  The temple leadership in first century Jerusalem deplored the motley collection of hicks and sinners who followed Jesus and shared his weird solicitude for women, outsiders, the unclean, and the ritually impure. The Romans at first ridiculed and later feared Christianity as a religion of slaves and the proletarii – a loser’s faith. To the 19th Century philosopher Nietzsche, “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” Paradoxically, that view was shared by both Karl Marx, who saw Christianity as “the sigh of the oppressed creature,” and Ayn Rand, who scorned it as an immoral weapon wielded by takers against makers.

But, you know, Ted Turner was right! Christianity is a religion for losers, and therein lays the divine wisdom that confounds the wisdom of the world. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord’” (I Corinthians 1:26-31).

The truth is that God doesn’t care who wins or loses a football game (though a majority of Americans apparently think he’s got something to do with it). God doesn’t care who’s rich and who’s poor, or who wields power and who doesn’t. What God wants us to know is that apart from grace we are all powerless, that we have all suffered losses only he can restore. Regardless of our station or net worth, we’re all called to appropriate the beautiful words of the old hymn, written by Isaac Watts: “When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the prince of glory died / My richest gain I count as loss / And pour contempt on all my pride.”

This, at bottom, is the source of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” which could (and perhaps should) be amended to read, “preferential option for losers.” In the need and powerlessness of the poor, we recognize ourselves in relation to God. In identifying with those the world considers losers, we acknowledge the truth of who we are and imitate what God did for us in Christ.  But the wisdom of God goes even deeper than that – in embracing our loss, in identifying with the poor, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). God turns the wisdom of the world on its head, so that “many who are first will be last and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).

In the Presentation narrative, Simeon thanks God for revealing Jesus, whom he calls “a light to the nations.” A couple of millennia later, the poet Leonard Cohen wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” God doesn’t want or expect a perfect offering from us; we couldn’t give it, anyway. He takes us as we are, with our cracks and broken pieces, ready to receive his light.

Next year around this time, I’ll be sitting in a tavern with my friends watching the Super Bowl. We’ll eat some wings, drink some Guinness, and feel the swell of pride when Tom Brady finally wins his fourth championship (you heard it here first). But thanks to Fr. Michael Marigliano, O.F.M. Cap., I’ll also remember that at bottom, all of us – me, you, my friends, even Tom Brady – are losers. Thanks be to God!