burnoutLiturgy, ritual and recreation are ways in which humanity finds and expresses meaning in life since existence at times can appear to be chaotic and senseless. In a world religions class that I teach, I make reference to the FIFA World Cup to illustrate the Buddhist concept of suffering, more precisely, “suffering from reversal.” According to Buddhist thought, due to impermanence, life can become meaningless.   Hence, living implies sorrow, pain and suffering. The word that Buddhist teaching employs is Dukkha and is translated as dissatisfaction, or more explicitly, dis-ease. This implies that we can never be at ease with life because suffering stems from the fact that life is ephemeral, we can never be content with the things we desire. Even what we possess cannot satisfy us since we are aware of its impermanence. The World Cup, which is a tournament that takes place every four years, for me, illustrates this concept well. I wait for this month-long competition to commence only to realize that once the ball rolls, I feel elation and sadness knowing that after sixty-four games it will end.

world cup emblamSuffering from reversal implies that, to a certain extent, I do not or cannot enjoy my favorite or desired events in life. My awareness of the finitude of time, life, and events prevents me from experiencing joy. Awareness of the temporality of happiness notwithstanding, there is something transcendental about the World Cup, football or sports in general. This year, the World Cup took place in Brazil, a country where people seem to follow football religiously. The feat of athletes and the national team’s victories and defeats are part of society’s collective memory. By watching the World Cup, I was able to appreciate the passion of people from the many countries represented as they ritualized the pageantry that is associated with this sport. Admiration and devotion to some football players is evident in most countries of the world. Images, and in some extreme cases even altars, of these athletes are displayed in homes and businesses. In stadiums, people chant the athletes’ names. They even seem to prayerfully beg them to intervene miraculously to change the fate of a game or perform superhuman acts to bring about the much desired goal of winning or advancing to another level of the competition.

Football devotees know that what is taking place on the field is more than a game. Most people expect football players to reach perfection, to overcome odds and triumph. In playing the game, athletes become not only myth-makers but also meaning makers. Their actions on the field transport the spectators to other realms of possibilities and understanding. The German philosopher Gadamer, asserts that in a game, the one who plays is not the one who assigns meaning to the game; instead, the game itself provides both meaning and understanding.  In this regard, football and liturgy converge. For Christians, participation in the liturgy is what provides meaning to life. 110901-N-ZZ999-054By ritualizing the Judeo-Christian myths, the liturgy actualizes the story of salvation; it provides many signs, symbols, and rituals that become powerful conveyors and signifiers. Even though the believer is called to actively participate in worship, it is not the believer who imposes meaning on the ritual, but the ritual itself provides meaning. More than that, the drama of the liturgy has Christ as its primary actor. The word used in Greek is leiturgos, which refers to one who performs a work on behalf of the people, and in antiquity this included athletes.  Christ becomes the one who works on behalf of the people, and at the same time, by entering into the realm of the sacred, believers become more than spectators. They are transported beyond the temporal and spatial realms to draw meaning from the liturgy itself. Joseph Ratzinger describes this interplay in the following manner: “Play takes us out of the world of daily goals and their pressures and into a sphere free of purpose and achievement, releasing us for a time from all the burdens of our daily world of work. Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where for a moment we can let life flow freely. . . . [Liturgy] is a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life. . .” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 13-14).

There seems to be some truth in the Buddhist perspective of suffering in that life is fleeting and short lived. However, liturgy, ritual, and play disclose moments where celebration is possible. For the human person, this capacity to engage in spontaneous play is constitutive of what it means to be human, while at the same time, I argue that it is precisely our capacity for self-transcendence that allows us to see ourselves as homo ludens, human beings as players or ritualists. This allows us to project ourselves, to move beyond the finitude of our lives. Our expressive need to act, to imagine, and to engage in spontaneous festivity and in celebration is essential to our human nature. This indispensable dimension of human life is what the World Cup celebrates every four years.

2014 © Dr. Francisco H. Castillo.  All Rights Reserved.

Liturgy photo by Official U.S. Navy Page, FIFA logo from FIFA website.