I recently attended a Notre Dame football game with three of my sons. It was a really special day for our family, but something was missing. The physical tickets. They were gifted to us by a longtime supporter of the university and they came right to my smartphone in digital form.
The convenience of the digital tickets was welcome, but I can’t help but wonder what is lost when technology replaces even the smallest routines and rituals. The changes probably seem inconsequential to some, but they are part of a significant shift that has quite a bit to do with our faith.
When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) at the Last Supper, he was, of course, referring to the eucharistic ritual. The presence of bread and wine was not incidental. It was at the heart of his teaching, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:54).
Jesus knew the answer to the question, “What helps us remember things that matter?” The fact that those things are made of “matter.” The more stuff that goes virtual, the fewer material reminders we have to orient and ground ourselves in reality.
We learned this during the pandemic when the Mass could be viewed online but the Eucharist could not be consumed by the faithful. Something very important was missing.
In the concourse of Notre Dame Stadium, there are huge blown-up signs with artwork from vintage game programs from the 1930s and 1940s. Notre Dame vs. Navy in Baltimore, with a picture of a goat trying to lasso a leprechaun.
Eighty years ago, some kid took that program home and put it in a special drawer so he could remember that special day with Dad or Grandpa. When he looks at it again, no matter how many years later, the memories will come flooding back. The weather that day. The score of the game. The sound of the crowd. The silliness of a goat lassoing a leprechaun.
The more society goes cashless and now ticketless, the more we grow senseless. Not senseless as in lacking common sense, but senseless as in depriving our senses of the physical things and stuff that can contain so much meaning.
When we store our photos, our money and our mementos in the “cloud,” we lose touch with an underappreciated aspect of our experience as embodied, material creatures.
The sacramental life of the church offers us a theological vision for why matter matters. Things, stuff and bodies are all part of how we come to know reality.
God became man, in the flesh, so that he could enter into the full reality of the human experience. The sacraments provide physical signs like water, ash, oil, bread and wine to ground us in God’s creation, while also lifting us to the higher ground of communion with the Creator.
A paper football ticket may not bestow sacramental grace, but it can embody a memory or a relationship that reveals a deeper meaning. It is a reminder that being human is more than a virtual experience.
In fact, it’s even more than a purely spiritual experience. The physical things we come into contact with are signs and reminders of the experiences that shape us and the people that love us.
I hope my boys remember that sunny September afternoon in South Bend with their dad. I think I’ll print out the tickets just to make sure.
Brett Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.