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He is risen ... play ball ... amen

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Baseball and Easter -- what do the two have in common? Not much, some might say. I disagree.

For starters, both Easter and baseball's opening day come about the same time, a time when we yearn for the new life that comes with spring.

For Christians, Easter is life overcoming death. Similarly, baseball's opening day announces that winter has been vanquished (even if the evidence outside our windows in Manitoba doesn't always support that idea).

Easter is about new beginnings. There's hope! For the baseball fan, opening day is also about hope; every team could go all the way.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more similarities I see between religion and baseball.

Like religion, baseball has rules, although the rules of baseball seem more immutable that many rules of religion today. In baseball, the umpire still has the final say and it's still three strikes and you're out -- no amount of postmodern thinking has ever changed that.

Like the religious life, baseball is impossible to do perfectly. The player who hits safely three times out of 10 is considered remarkable; the one who can do it four times out of 10 is amazing -- miraculous, even. Like religion, baseball teaches about humility and the need to avoid hubris. Pride, in this case, goes before a strikeout or a muffed fly ball.

Other ways baseball is like religion include all its religious elements: things like a creation story, falls from grace, redemption, icons, rituals, holy books, cathedrals, songs, miracles, saviours and sinners (lots and lots of sinners).

Baseball even has the equivalent of denominations -- the National and American leagues, with deep theological-like disputations over the use of the designated hitter. And there's even a Vatican-like Baseball Hall of Fame, where "worshippers" can view holy relics, venerate the saints and re-live the great moments of the faith.

Someone who also sees the connection between religion and baseball is John Sexton, author of the book Baseball as a Road to God.

In the book, Sexton argues that baseball is more than just a game. It has a spiritual essence, something ineffable and indescribable -- just like religious faith.

"Baseball evokes in the life of its faithful features we associate with the spiritual life: faith and doubt, conversion, blessings and curses, miracles, and so on," he says. "For some, baseball really is a road to God."

Sexton is also president of New York University. At the university, he teaches a course about the spirituality of baseball. Though the course he tries to "get students to think about things that they see as mundane in a rich and nuanced way, and to do that through the trigger of something they see as an oxymoron."

By using something familiar -- baseball -- he hopes they can see the world in a different way, a way that "adds to the richness of your experience of everything in the world."

For some, that may be a stretch, and not just the kind you take during the seventh inning of a baseball game. All I know is that, for me, baseball awakens my sense of hope and renewal. All things are possible, and miracles can happen -- even for the Toronto Blue Jays, who the faithful believe could win it all this year.

Writing on the Sojourner's Magazine blog, editor and baseball fan Jim Wallis says that "the key emotion of my baseball experience is hope over despair, which is also the most important meaning of Easter for us as Christians.

"No matter what happens, or what seems to be in control, or how politically hopeless things seem to be, or how oppressive the state of the world is, how endless the suffering of the most vulnerable in the world seems to be -- or despite how the painful realities in our own lives, families or health occupy our hearts and minds -- Christians will affirm on Easter morning, "He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed." And then we go on living in that hope, which is the only thing that ever changes our lives or the world."

To which I say, "Amen." And, "play ball!"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 D16

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