Few things have helped build my character more than my love for the Buffalo Bills — except for my faith. Both have taught me how to handle heartbreak, loss, expectation, and hope. As I think about how my faith and love of football have become part of my identity, and since the only thing I talk about as much as theology and the Bible is football, I have reflected on the theology of football.
Problematic violence and potential controversial questions aside, football can teach us a lot of things. As a Bills fan, I learned how to deal with heartbreak and loss. We can practice engaging in conversation with those who disagree in an environment where no lives or livelihoods are on the line. Football is a microcosm of God’s kingdom, a place where God’s kingdom values of community are being played out on a stage where the most beautiful aspects of God’s greatest creation are on display. Off the field, it cultivates a place of belonging, contributes to a communal identity, and provides a place for everyone to be active participants in contributing to the common goal. As the game has evolved, it reminds us of the way God’s creation has evolved. It challenges our perception of time, success, failure, and second-chances. Its rhythm echoes that of the Divine, reminding us of a Creator who bends down in the dirt with us, feeling and experiencing everything together with us.
There are many things I could say about the theology of football. For this post, however, I consider the theology of football as it relates to Advent. In particular, I look at one team, though the argument can be applied to the sport as a whole. Now, I do not want to trivialize the importance or meaning of Advent. While there is an analogous relationship between the two, there is never an equal one-to-one comparison. I also do not want to make a vague or shallow metaphorical connection between the two. I do not want this to be just another illustration used in an attempt to squeeze relatable relevance out of a theological message, but I do think we can look to some examples in football to add some valuable insight to our theology.
And I think it all begins with one photo.
This photo may go down as one of the most iconic photos in football history, and for Bills fans in particular, it hits deep. In it, Stefon Diggs remains the sole Bills player on the football field as he watches the Kansas City Chiefs celebrate their victory as AFC Champions. They were one win away from the biggest night of their career, the most important game of the season, and the most watched event of the year (in America at least). Instead of sitting in the locker room with his teammates, licking his wounds, trying to avoid the pain, however, Diggs is standing directly in the middle of it., longing for something more. He stands and watches before walking away, picking himself and his team up, and starting fresh. Even for those of us who weren’t there or for those who don’t really know anything about football or this photo, we can feel a deep sense of pain, heartache, expectation, and even hope.
As with every franchise, the Bills have been waiting for the moment they can lift the Lombardi trophy above their heads and proclaim, “We did it!” They have waited for the day the streets of Buffalo would overflow with people and celebrate as the fans sing the Shout song and hail them as heros. The fans have been watching and waiting year after year as we sit painfully in our expectations and dare ourselves to feel hope. Four times we have held our breath and watched what we thought would be the day we could finally release our collective breath and shout, only to see our opponents win yet again. And every year, we say “this is our year!” as we watch the pain of dropped passes, interceptions, missed field goals, and lost games.
At the beginning of this season (the season after this photo was taken), we had high expectations and even higher hopes. Experts analyzed our past, looked into our future, and pegged us early as Super Bowl contenders, some even favoring us to win. However, right now it is week 15 of the season and the Bills are sitting at 7-6. We are wondering if this really will be our year. But, we fight on each week, actively doing what we can to make that dream a reality despite the obstacles and setbacks. We take each game and each day one at a time and work to be better than yesterday. I say we because, while I am not on the field playing, fans are still members of the team. The team cannot win without the support of the fans. We play an integral role in their success and we are there to support them even in their failures.
As we see the regular season of football coming to a close, and the playoffs looming on the horizon, I can’t help but think about where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go. And, as we see the season of Advent ending and Christmastime approaching, I can’t help but think the same. Advent, for us Christians, is more than waiting for Christmas. Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Light, Hope, Peace, Love, Joy, of the world — the Incarnation of Christ. Advent, however, is about the waiting. While we wait, we remember, we expect, we observe, and we even grieve. Advent reminds us of the time before the Incarnation. It reminds us of the past when the people of Israel were in exile, in the dark, waiting for a Light to come. When they thought year after year, “maybe this will be the year,” as they watched their enemies triumph over them once again. Their prophets, experts of God’s words, begged them to remember their past and consider their future. They were expecting the Messiah God had promised, and they were holding their breath as they watched and waited in their sin and brokenness, wondering if God would ever fulfill the promise.
Advent also reminds us to observe and grieve. We observe the here and now, the disappointment and celebration around us and within us, wondering if this year is going to be different from last. Advent gives us space for grief, for pain, and for darkness. It allows us to embrace our desire for something more but not to forget about our pain as we look ahead to the something more. We stand with our head in our hands, grief-stricken as we observe the sin and brokenness in our world. We pause and look around in the darkness before we stop and celebrate the arrival of the Light. Advent is also a time to look ahead to our future with hope. We are living in a time of hopeful expectation, looking ahead to God’s kingdom to come. We remain active every day as we participate in God’s work and seek to make the world a little better today than it was yesterday, hoping for the day the world will celebrate as Christ returns and we become co-heirs and rulers with him. Like the Bills, we work together as a team to make the promise of hopeful restoration a reality. Unlike Diggs, however, we are not the only ones who remain on the field. We are all members of the team and we stand together, side by side, with each other, and with Christ. No one ever stands alone in their pain.
There are a lot of things football can teach us. But during this Advent season, it reminds us to stand in our darkness as we await the coming of the Light. It reminds us that all we can do today is pause in our pain and brokenness and do our best to work together with God to build God’s kingdom. It reminds us to slow down and take it one day at a time as we hope for something more. The promise is coming; it may just not be when or how we expected it, but we wait and we work because we know we will one day have that celebration in the streets.
As a Bills fan, this photo says a lot about our team, about our expectations, our hope, and our pain. As a Christian waiting for Christmas, it speaks to the importance of Advent as I expect, wait, and observe. I do not know what the rest of the season holds for the Bills. I do not know if this will finally be the year we hold in our minds all the past pain, expectations, heartache, and losses as we hold above our heads the joy and celebration of the Lombardi.. I do not know what the future holds for the world. But I do know that this is the time of year we as Christians can remember our pain, brokenness, sins, and darkness as we hold in our hearts the hope and redemption of the coming Light.