This past Sunday was a day of both realized hopes and dashed dreams, but it served as a mere preview of what’s to come the rest of the week. Young men have spent lifetimes working towards this ultimate goal and have ascended to the precipice, where in less than a month, only one will be declared champion. Only one will have their dreams realized.
Of course, I’m speaking of “March Madness,” the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. As fervent as the players and coaches are for each team competing in the games, as one would expect, the event has grown beyond them to become a cultural phenomenon with millions more riding the emotional ebbs and flows every March. We will all fill out our brackets (whether we enter an office pool or not), and follow our picks with bated breath, hoping we were smart enough (scratch that – lucky enough) to pick the “Cinderella” darling team that makes an improbable run. We will cheer for our favorite team if they made the field of sixty-eight. (As a Virginia fan, I can appreciate just how hard it is. This marks the first time in over thirty years that UVA has made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments.) We will follow the stories elevating the dignity of the individual players and coaches involved, and we will relate to the heartbreak and triumph of so many. For a month, the Madness will capture our fascination, which all begs the question….
If we remove ourselves from the Madness, take a gigantic step back, and look at the big picture, we are watching college students participate in a voluntary competition to gain nothing more than some wood and glass statues, large pieces of felt, and maybe some gold rings. For worldly standards, this seems to be low stakes. Of course, that’s not the case for the many organizations who make considerable money off the Tournament, but that is only possible because millions of people care about the trophies, banners, and rings.
So again, why?
I think the answer goes back as far as time, and the root of our rooting interest is based on something far more valuable than any earthly possessions. I believe we are more than participating in a game, but practicing a virtue. I believe at the heart of this tournament is hope. It is hope for the impossible, hope to overcome, hope that our wildest dreams and yearnings could actually come true. It is hope that we will see, so that we might believe.
“Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and … The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” (1 Samuel 17:33, 37)
Of course, David prevailed against Goliath and edified all of Israel. In his defeat of Goliath, the Israelites saw the impossible realized and had faith in God. It reminds me of another Biblical story in which someone had to see the impossible in order to believe:
But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:25-29)
Aren’t we all at least a little bit like Thomas? How much easier would our lives be, would our faith be, if we could just see for ourselves? This is why I think we must practice hope, like we practice love, or else we might fall into the trap of being so focused on what’s before our eyes that we forget the glorious promises God has in store for us. Promises that exceed our earthly understanding or human capacity to imagine. A promise of eternal life in bliss with our Creator and His Creation. This hope is a magnificent gift from God, and the more we attune our minds, bodies, and souls to the desire for Him and His promises, the more joyful our lives will be and the deeper our relationship with God will grow.
The priest in church this Sunday discussed experiencing God in the wonder of a sunrise over the ocean and encouraged us to seek God where we find Him in our lives. We need to do exactly that, because the road is long and difficult, and we need encouragement along the way. Perhaps that’s why we watch March Madness. Maybe we experience an ounce of heavenly joy in the triumph of an underdog. Maybe we experience God’s love in learning a stranger’s story, brought to light for millions due to his basketball prowess. Maybe we are looking for a glimpse, a wink, to show us that the logic of this world and all our understanding can be overcome by the wisdom and love of God. Maybe we watch, so that we might hope for something much greater.