Lent and March Madness have something in common—they both involve a lot of prayer. The two come around for a visit every spring, like young-adult children who look and act remarkably different yet acknowledge they’re somehow related. Lent, of course, is the elder, quietly sober, disciplined, and sometimes penitential; March Madness (whose real name is NCAA Basketball Tournament) can get hysterical, obsessive, and sometimes criminally insane. But it’s usually short-lived.
Each has a history—some would say “issues”—in the human family, but Lent seems the more esteemed, maybe because the early church father Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-200) said nothing about March Madness but makes reference in his writings to the already-established traditions of Lent, which in his time amounted to a few days of public penance.
Later, it’s said, Pope Gregory the Great (c.540-c.604) expanded Lent to forty days (not counting Sundays), from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter Sunday, and initiated the practice on Ash Wednesday of smudging an ashen cross on the foreheads of congregants to remind them and non-Christians of their sinful, human frailty—“You are dust and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19).
By A.D. 800, however, not only the ashen symbol but the theological meaning of Lent had become as perceptible as incense. What’s more, the discipline of fasting had so waned that by 1400 the church was allowing Christians to eat fish in the afternoons. A welcomed mercy. Then during the Protestant Reformation some Christians wanted to eliminate Lent entirely, since the Bible doesn’t teach the practice of penance. But Martin Luther asserted that Lenten disciplines strengthen a person’s spiritual character and offer a Christian witness to the secular world.
Today, Lent is still observed by Roman Catholics and some mainline Protestants, but is rarely acknowledged by most Evangelicals. Some evangelical Christians, though, are now adopting the few passably biblical disciplines of Lent as ways of practicing spiritual formation and a means of fostering a distinctive, historical Christian witness in a world that seems obsessed with the present moment and entertainment and the pleasures of the flesh.
Not to be outdone by Lent, March Madness also claims a history, of sorts. According to legend, the phrase “March Madness” was first used in 1939, when an official with the Illinois High School Association wrote in an article, “A little march madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” Of course, he was being ironic. Wasn’t he?
Through the good sense of somebody, the little phrase “March Madness” was confined to Illinois high-school tournaments until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger casually used it during his coverage of the 1982 NCAA Basketball Tournaments. The catchphrase caught on. And though March Madness (a registered trademark, mind you) now denotes a series of basketball games, the alliterative phrase is more commonly associated with the Mardi Gras-like excitement of the college competitions. Indeed, for some college students, the entire month of March is like Fat Tuesday in a fraternity.
Exciting and dramatic though the basketball games may be, they seem to trigger bi-polar symptoms in our national psyche, mood swings from ecstasy to despair, and a surge in gambling. Truth be told, according to the NCAA, thirty-five percent of male college students bet on sports, and seven of ten adults have placed a sports wager in the last year. In amount of dollars gambled, March Madness betting is second only to wagering on teams in the National Football League.
But, then, sometimes life seems like a wager. So perhaps March Madness is a kind of morality play in the middle of Lent—the basketball tournaments dramatizing the hopes and agonies of us all, reminding us that it’s risky to desire an Easter Sunday. And perhaps March Madness offers us opportunities for a distinctively Christian witness during a month when some of our neighbors and coworkers are acting, well, a little crazy. Then maybe, just maybe by the grace of God, our Lenten witness can in some way “contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.”