On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Mar 21, 2024

This weekend marks the beginning of one of the most important liturgical seasons that we celebrate each year. Every year, around this time, we embark on a journey in which the full drama of human experience will unfold before our eyes–a veritable roller coaster, which includes supreme highs, agonizing lows, and, as we hope (and if we’re lucky) a miraculous comeback victory, snatched from the jaws of death.

Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about MARCH MADNESS. And I can assure you all, the faithful, that at 7:10 p.m. tonight, both your priests will be religiously observing the Holy Feast of the Devils’ Victory Over the Catamounts.

March Madness is, for many, the most fun and exciting sports event of the year. One of the most fun and exciting things about this year’s event is the fact that the Women’s Tournament is clearly more compelling and interesting than the Men’s–and it’s not even close, and it’s not even a debate. The Women’s game now features star players that have become household names–like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins, and Paige Bueckers–and legendary coaches like Geno Auriemma, Kim Mulkey, Tara Vanderveer, and Dawn Staley. Just in time, too, as the Men’s game has recently suffered the exodus of many of its great coaches, and the teams themselves are often comprised of hardly recognizable “one and dones” (i.e. players who play just a year before heading to pros) leaving most fans of the Men’s game disaffected and disinterested. The Women also play a brand of basketball that’s just really fun to watch–one that’s collaborative, coordinated, selfless, and affirming. It’s been so cool to see Women leading the way this year, a definite victory for all of us who have wanted to see more gender equity in sports.

Of course, there is another important liturgical celebration that begins this week–one that is at least as holy as March Madness (some would argue, even more). This Sunday is Palm Sunday, which begins our yearly journey through Holy Week–including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter.

Now, some might think these two “liturgical” seasons to be quite different. I’m one who sees deep resonances. For starters, women led the way at Easter, too–were the first to Jesus’ tomb, the first to witness the Resurrection, and so, the very first preachers of the Gospel to the church.

I also think that sports–and especially team sports, like basketball–are a wonderful metaphor for what we do this week. This past week, I’ve been teaching my “Moral Theology” class at St. John’s University the difference between modern moral philosophy and classical Christian ethics. Modern moral philosophy, I explained to them, is generally focused on producing universal principles that govern either right action (i.e. deontology) or right outcomes (i.e. consequentialism, utilitarianism, etc.). Classical Christian ethics, by contrast, is generally focused on producing virtues (i.e. patience, wisdom, courage, and justice), which are more like skills a moral agent possesses that guide them in how to operate in a given circumstance. Classical Christian ethics is less concerned about what makes a decision good or bad, and more about what makes a person good or bad. Or again, it is less about rules or results, and more about character. It therefore doesn’t decide on what right actions or outcomes are universally, or in advance, but forms and trains people in the skills of discernment required to know what a right action or outcome will be in a given situation.

And, as an aside, an ethics based more on people than on rules–well, I think that still has some purchase today.

That language about “forming and training in a skill” is, of course, another deep resonance with sports. Because modern moral philosophy is what it is, the metaphor most modern people have for morality is something like a “rulebook.” By contrast, classical Christian ethics has always thought a better metaphor is the “gym.” Classical Christian ethics believes that, if you want to be an ethical person, you don’t need to determine which rulebook to follow. You need to participate in practices–especially “team” (i.e. communal, or ecclesial) practices. For these practices will reshape how you see the world, and so, how you will choose to inhabit it–in all of its bewildering moral complexity, and all its various moral aporia.

And Holy Week is just such a communal practice. We go through Holy Week to be formed and trained into the skill of seeing the world the way God does–a way that can lead to human flourishing. More specifically, by participating in a communal practice like Holy Week, we reshape and reattune our moral vision around the self-giving, death-conquering, and life-giving love performed by Jesus as he goes to the cross and rises from the grave. Each time we live through the story of this week–just like each time a player practices a jump shot, or a team practices a play–that story becomes more natural to us. So, when the “game” is on the line, we have already become the sort of people who know which “shot” to take, know which “play” to run, and so, know how to participate with God in securing love’s final victory over brokenness, sin, and death.

So, blessings to you, this March Madness and Holy Week. I look forward to seeing many of you at practice…

Coach Lee+