By Zac Koons
Allow me to refresh your memory: It’s 2016, game seven of the World Series, bottom of the tenth inning. There are two outs, the Chicago Cubs are up by one run, and Michael Martinez of the Cleveland Indians is at the plate. On the second pitch, Martinez hits a short-hop grounder toward third base, which is fielded by National League MVP, Kris Bryant, who collects the ball, throws the runner out at first, and falls to his knees. Bedlam ensues. The Chicago Cubs have just won the World Series.
This, dear reader, was one of those moments where the fabric of the universe gets pulled back and for one fleeting second you see its underlying logic. Call me crazy, but just about everything you need to know about the Christian moral life is embedded in that five seconds.
Let me explain. There are three things present within those five seconds I want to mention.
Number one: First and foremost inside those five seconds is the palpable presence of the Curse. If you’re a Cubs fan, you know about the billy goat. You know that it had been 108 years since the Cubs won their last World Series, which is a drought twice as long as the next team in line. And you’re confident the reason for this is because the last time the Cubs came close to winning a trophy in 1945, a Wrigleyville pub owner was kicked out of the stadium because his pet goat, Murphy, whom he brought with him into the stands, smelled so bad it was bothering other fans, and that in an act of retribution, that pub owner put a hex on the Cubs organization, leading them not only to lose that World Series but also keeping them from ever making it back .
Evidence of the curse has been abundant: from the stray black cat incident of 1969, to the Bill Buckner error at first base in 1986 at Shea Stadium (he was wearing a Cubs batting glove!), and, of course, the Bartman foul ball fiasco of the 2003 NLCS. The curse hangs in the consciousness of Cubs fandom during this five seconds, so that even though a short-hop grounder to third ends in an easy out 99% of the time in professional baseball, they know better than to presume those same odds apply to them. They practically expect an error.
Like Cubs Nation, the weight of a curse looms large in our daily lives. It’s called sin. Its existence is even harder to deny than the curse of the billy goat. Not only do we see its effects everywhere around us in every act of injustice, every illness, and every death, but we feel it inside our own consciousness, too. It changes the chemistry in our brains, so that things that shouldn’t be difficult to do, like go to the gym, or make eye contact with a homeless man, or pray, turn out to require much more significant moral rigor. The deck is stacked against us.
Number two: If you watch these five seconds through an alternate camera angle, one zoomed in on Cubs third baseman, Kris Bryant, for the duration of the play, you’ll see something miraculous — that in the same millisecond the ball comes off the bat, the same millisecond Bryant realizes the ball has been hit toward him, but still long before the ball is safely in his glove, much less the glove of the first baseman, Kris Bryant is smiling. He’s beaming, actually. Ear to ear. It might be the most beautiful moment I’ve ever seen in sports.
You see, even though it’s not quite done yet, he can already see in his mind everything that’s about to happen. Even though it’s still four seconds into the future, he can already see a future where the curse is broken. The horizon of a whole new world is unfurling before him. And in this new reality, why couldn’t the Cubs win it again next year? Or for the next five years? It’s an amazing moment. The game isn’t quite over; technically the curse is still in effect, but Bryant is already feeling the effects of redemption in his bones. He is, in some strange way, already living in the future.
This is the moment we live in. This is the already-but-not-yet. This is what Advent is all about. Redemption isn’t done quite yet, but by reading the prophets, and looking to Jesus, we can see that future on the horizon. We know what it will be like. The lion will lay down with the lamb. All wrongs will be made right. Death will be no more. And we’ll experience eternal companionship with God and one another. We can see that future from here.
In fact, we can already feel the effects of redemption in our bones. Salvation is something we experience now. Our sins have been forgiven. And we’ve been given the Holy Spirit in our baptism, who is working in our bodies and in our communities to bring about redemption here and now, through repentance and reconciliation.
Which is why — to put it simply — being a Christian means being someone who often can’t help but smile. Christians are definitionally a joyful people. Being joyful does not mean ignoring the pain, the brokenness, or other not-yet-redeemed parts of creation. Being joyful does not preclude being sad, heartbroken, or even depressed. The joy of the Christian smile comes from a deeper place. This deeper place knows that though the curse still lingers in the air, its existence is temporary; that despite all the heartbreaking realities of our world, in the end God wins; and that we can, to some extent, already experience that victory. To be a part of the Church is, in some strange way, to be already living in the future.
Number three: Even though Kris Bryant is smiling, he still needs to throw the ball and get it to first base. Even though we can see comprehensive redemption in our future, there’s still work that needs to be done. The name for that work is discipleship.
How do we do discipleship? Well, how does Kris Bryant successfully field that grounder and throw it to first base? Training. Actually, you’d be hard pressed to find a better, more theologically rich metaphor for Christian discipleship than the particular kind of training undergone by baseball players.
The way one becomes a good baseball player is more about the formation of instincts and habits than it is the repeated rehearsal of individual plays or shots. A batter at the plate has a fraction of a second to decide whether or not the pitch coming at him is a ball or a strike, and therefore whether or not he should swing. That’s not enough time to think. Instead, he must develop instincts, so his bat practically responds involuntarily, almost automatically. And he forms instincts by developing habits, by facing so many thousands of different kinds of pitches that his bat is ready, in the game, to respond to whatever kind of pitch comes next. Likewise, Kris Bryant doesn’t prepare to field that grounder by having some machine duplicate exactly that kind of short-hop, slow-moving, left-spinning grounder a hundred times. There are a tremendous number of ways a ball can come off a bat. The key is to have taken so many thousands of different kinds of grounders in practice that in the game you’ll be ready to field whatever kind of hit comes your way.
The truth is that Kris Bryant had no idea what was about to happen when the pitch was first thrown. And it’s the same for us. We often have no idea what’s coming at us next. Will it be cancer? A new boss? A larger salary? A car crash? A divorce? Or an unexpected healing? As in baseball, and so too for us, there can be long seasons when it feels like nothing is really happening. But the truth is on that last play, every single Cubs player was on the tip of their toes, ready for the ball to be hit to them.
Christian discipleship is not about being able to predict or control what happens to you next. It’s about developing the right kinds of holy instincts so you can respond Christianly to whatever comes your way. Our habits aren’t calling balls and strikes. They are going to church. Reading the Bible. Praying. Living in Christian community and friendship. Doing works of mercy. They are eating and drinking the Eucharist. It’s precisely through repeated reps at the Christian plate that we can hope, when those crucial moments come in our lives, to respond with forgiveness instead of vengeance, to react with patience instead of anger, to almost involuntarily respond with kindness instead of selfishness, or peace instead of violence. We all know it’s not a question of whether or not these moments come. They always do. And if we want to get the ball to first base, we have to develop holy instincts.
You can see, actually, how the well-developed instincts of Kris Bryant make his smile possible. He was so confident in his instincts that he could relax and enjoy the most intense moment of his career. Christian joy, it turns out, is actually a moral accomplishment. And so the reason to undergo training, the reason to keep going to church, to keep reading your Bible, to say the Daily Office yet again, is all about more than just doing the right thing in life’s important moments. It’s about joy. It’s about you being able to smile.
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.