by Emily A. Mellott
Every year, early in January, certain dates imprint themselves on my consciousness: Ash Wednesday (this year, February 13), and the date that pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training (February 10 for the earliest teams, including my Chicago Cubs – your team’s pitchers may report a day or two later.) And then there’s Easter (March 31) and Opening Day (March 31, Rangers at Astros, 8 pm EDT). And so for several weeks, I’ve been aware that this year, Spring Training almost exactly parallels Lent.
For the sake of my personal dreams and wishes, this is a disaster. Every year I promise myself that next year I’m going to Spring Training. And every year, the time comes to book tickets and it turns out that Lent has overwhelmed my calendar – it happens that way for parish priests. But in other ways, this calendar coincidence is perfect.
In Arizona and Florida, in a few places consecrated by hope and sweat and expectation, major league ballplayers start the disciplines of their vocation. The rituals of teamwork take over from individual training or relaxation. Repetition, trial and error mark the path to the perfect pitch, the tight and well-turned double play, the towering home run. And identities are navigated: who’s the starting second baseman this year, and who is the utility infielder; who’s the clubhouse clown, and who steadies the team and pulls everyone together?
It’s the same thing we’re doing in church, after all – in communities all over the country and the world, consecrated by prayer and habit, by inspiring experience and hour after hour of volunteer effort. The rituals of Lent insist on a different focus of attention; one where repentance and renewal takes over from routine and comfort. Trial and error – and then a lot of repetition – mark our liturgical changes and our commitments to fasting and discipline – better known as “giving something up” or “taking something on” for Lent. And we wrestle with our identity – our flaws and our gifts, our hopes and fears – what and who we truly believe ourselves to be.
For me, Spring Training is a fantasy land – a place and a life that I have promised myself, someday – because it’s warm, and relaxed, and open. The sun is supposed to shine on Spring Training, the distinctions between stars and newcomers blur, the players and the fans seem closer together. But most of all, Spring Training is my dream because it is so infused with hope. It’s a blank slate: what happened last year is gone, and everything is possible. It’s a free zone for trial and error – horrible batting averages, team records, or ERAs disappear on Opening Day.
Even though that’s not how I usually think of Lent, it’s what I long for. Wouldn’t it be great if our season of repentance was full of light, refreshment, and openness? Repentance, after all, is the process of profoundly turning back to God. The metaphorical equivalent of midday Arizona sun would help - to see where I’ve gotten to, and how to turn back. That sense of openness to others could turn up God-sightings in unexpected places. Openness is a part of the practice of forgiveness, too – because trial and error happens at least as much in faith as in baseball. And I’m probably not the only one who needs to relax a bit, to stop depending on our schedules and ourselves and our electronic devices, so that we fall further into the hands of God.
Most of all, though, Lent is a time to steep ourselves in hope and possibility and expectation. Professional ballplayers are training for the win: for awards and titles, winning seasons, the World Series. Christians, meanwhile, are training for resurrection: for eternal life breaking in to here and now. We’re training the muscles of the spirit and the heart to reliably produce the kind of hope that sees the presence of God in the world, right in the midst of daily life. We’re training those muscles to produce possibilities for reconciliation, compassion, and healing in the face of prejudice, petty injustice and systemic oppressions. We’re training our bodies and souls for the joy and gratitude and grace so needed as the world turns upside down again and again.
Living resurrection, living in the kingdom of God, is a lot of work. But we don’t do it alone. It takes a team – including the folks who barely get off the bench, the staff who never set foot on the field, and even the fans in the bleachers – to win the World Series or to record a “perfect game.” It takes a team – you and me and Christians we’ve never even met – to make truth out of eternal life and fact of the Kingdom of God.
But I’m convinced that when we get there it’s worth every moment – every year and hour of hope and work and cheering from the bleachers. I like to think it’s sunny and warm – but it might happen on a snowy October night. And if this isn’t the year we win the Series, or the year of your resurrection, then it’s especially good news that Spring Training happens every year – in Arizona, in Florida, and in your local church. And once again, over and over, everything is possible, and hope is the only truth that matters.
So, in that spirit, please forgive me if I slip some Sunday morning, and open the worship service with the immortal words, “Play ball!”
The Rev. Emily A. Mellott, is the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard, Illinois and a life-long Cubs fan.