Asterisk Years in Sport
Regular readers of this blog will know that I often find the transition into the new calendar year, with all its possibilities and uncertainties, to be facilitated through sporting events. By occasionally tuning into Sky Sports News, I managed to follow some of the festive sporty action this year, but I think my lasting impression will be of all the Covid cases and the impact this had. The pinnacle of festive sport – the World Darts Championships – was somewhat affected by positive Covid tests: three big names had to pull out of the tournament, and frankly, it was remarkable this number was so few. Any visit to Sky Sports News involved being confronted by headlines and discussion about cancellation of major football fixtures, reporting of more positive Covid tests, and the effect that this was having on teams. There was palpable frustration from managers who felt aggrieved and unjustly treated because of the difficult decisions to play, cancel, or postpone fixtures.
While fortune is an intrinsic element of sport, avoiding a serious respiratory disease to be able to continue to compete is not typical, and so I have sympathised with organisers about how to proceed fairly. This, of course, has been a feature of our most unusual last 20 months. A little over a year ago when riders and whole teams in the Giro D’Italia were testing positive and being forced to leave the race, a phrase came to my mind to describe sport and perhaps life in these years of COVID: ‘asterisk years’. Let me explain.
An asterisk (*) is a symbol bearing the appearance of a star (Greek: aster; Latin: astrum) which is often used to express something abnormal or unusual. In 2020, my adopted football team, Coventry City, did very well to win England’s League One. I imagine, however, that an asterisk might appear beside this feat in some football records since they did not play out the whole 46 games of the season owing to Covid. Returning to the Giro D’Italia of 2020, a young British rider, Tao Geoghegan Hart, arguably capitalised on the abandonment of several more experienced riders and the brutal conditions to secure a famous overall victory. Although I would prefer to see Geoghegan Hart’s victory as a star being born – witness also Emma Raducanu – some cycling fans might put a slight asterisk beside it because of the unusual circumstances in which the event took place.
While, like all of us, I sincerely hope that the latest variant soon subsides so that asterisks are less necessary in current editions of sporting events, sport is being affected to the extent that ‘asterisk years’ are once more a possibility. Even if sport might pale into insignificance compared to the dis-aster that COVID continues to cause, it does, I believe, offer a largely healthy distraction. We might, however, need to expect and learn to celebrate somewhat more unpredictable outcomes.
While asterisks usually denote the unusual or exceptional, we might also dwell on some of their other uses. Keeping with the sporty theme and disaster, the current Ashes series is something most people in England are trying to obliterate from memory. Unfortunately, few English batsmen have had the asterisk next to high scores to show that they are ‘not out’. Most other examples which come to my mind beyond sport, however, are from linguistics. We know that asterisks are used in place of letters in expletives (e.g., “Aussie w****r”), or when bold or italic functions are unavailable to us, they can be used to signpost *very important things*. In linguistics, an asterisk can also indicate a hypothetical or impossible word or phrase. Finally, in ancient texts, an asterisk is one symbol used to indicate and correct defects. In short, the asterisk is a most versatile symbol.
Stars in Scripture
Writing about asterisks and stars at the turn of a New Year is very timely. Although the wise men or magi are usually bundled into Christmas nativity sets, many church traditions celebrate the occasion of their being guided by the star from the east with the Feast of Epiphany which traditionally follows Christmas. This astral scene is famously described in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and forms part of many a sermon in the first week of January. As we head into 2022, I want to course through a few other places where stars come into view in the New Testament and consider how they might encourage us in these asterisk years.
References to stars crop up here and there throughout the Old and New Testaments, but apart from Matt 2, the place where they form the clearest cluster is in the final canonical book: Revelation. John’s vision of Jesus Christ is filled with descriptions of stars. I haven’t the space (or expertise!) to explore all the passages but the beginning and end of Revelation merit mention. The beginning of the vision depicts seven angels who go to seven churches. They are also described as stars, as Jesus himself explains the mystery of the seven stars to John: ‘the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches’ (Rev 1:20). To the faithful of one of the churches, Thyatira, it is promised: ‘I shall give him (or her) the morning star’ (Rev 2:28). Then, significantly, at the end of the vision, the angel reports these words from Jesus: ‘I, Jesus … I am the root and the offspring of David, the shining and morning star’ (Rev 22:16).
What we see, then, in Revelation is that Jesus, who was with God at the beginning of creation when the stars were formed, is described in cosmic terms as a star yet with earthly lineage. Moreover, Jesus is not the only star in Revelation: the angels, churches, and individuals within the churches also become like stars in John’s vision.
We can usefully compare this to the two places in Paul’s letters where stars (or similar) are mentioned. Although it was probably written slightly later, I start with Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi, following his portrayal of Christ’s example (Phil 2:14-15, AT):
Do everything without grumbling and disputation, so that you might be blameless and pure, as unblemished children of God amid a corrupt and depraved generation, among whom you shine like illuminations in the world.
As I have tried to convey in this translation which differs from the NIV (‘then you will shine among them like stars in the sky’), I think it is important to note that the verb is present rather than future: Paul believes that the Philippians’ shining is possible now. This is something which, I believe, extends to believers collectively today in testing circumstances: it is possible, through the agency of Jesus and his Spirit, to illuminate in the face of opposition.
While it is possible to shine now, however, the intensity of the illumination will never be the same as at the resurrection. Conveniently, the other place where Paul talks about stars is with reference to this bodily resurrection of the believer in one of his most brilliant but complex passages towards the end of 1 Corinthians 15. His basic point is that all believers will receive a resurrection body, but these bodies will not be identical. This is the case with heavenly bodies, including stars: ‘star differs from star in glory, thus will be the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor 15:41-42, AT). In other words, at the resurrection, believers will receive a heavenly body like that of the stars. Paul goes on to illustrate this through a contrast between a believing individual’s earthly body and heavenly body: ‘The first person was from the dust of the earth, the second person from heaven … just as we have borne the image of the dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’ (1 Cor 15:47, 49). While inaugurated in this life, the transformation of the believer, is only complete at his or her resurrection, when they assume a heavenly body, like a star.
Shining in Asterisk Years
Regular readers of this blog will also know that I sometimes like to include songs that I’ve recently heard which can come from different eras, if not quite star-like eons. Today, though, it is a relatively recent song that some people at St Aldates Church in Oxford made called ‘Oh How We Need You’. It is a beautiful song full of truth. Its chorus is as follows:
Oh, how we need You, Lord,
We can’t make it on our own
Though our days are like the dust
Still Your love will carry us…
I feel it captures much of what this post has explored: principally, our need to be guided like the magi by the morning star of Christ such that we are carried along by his love. The part about our days being like the dust is especially interesting. This refers to the psalmist’s words: ‘he [the Lord] knows our form and remembers that we are dust’ (Ps 103:14). In 1 Cor 15, we saw that Paul also acknowledged humanity’s dust-like state, but he had a vision that things wouldn’t remain that way: on account of Christ’s resurrection, believers can follow him in being transformed from dust to stardust, from the earthly to the heavenly. Therefore, Christians can sing not only that ‘our days are like the dust’ but that ‘our days are like the stardust’: they are only just beginning.
This matters more than ever in these exceptional asterisk years, however long they continue. These are difficult and humbling days, but ones nevertheless where stardom is accessible not only to those elite sportspeople who evade the clutches of Covid, but to all because of Christ’s victory over death. Despite our doubts, defects, and the expletives which we might still utter, despite separation and even mortality, together we can still shine like stars in asterisk years.*
 For some darts-inspired reflections from last year, see: https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/03/unhindered/
 In writing this, I became aware that this term had been negatively applied by a writer, Paul Larkin, to Rangers’ dominance in Scottish football through dubious, even illicit, financial means. In this post, I steer clear of this conflict and put a more positive spin on what asterisk years might entail.
 I advocate the past participle of ‘preach’ taking the hypothetical form *praught rather than ‘preached’.
 For a comprehensive yet lay-friendly guide to Matt 2, see Ian Paul’s blog: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/myth-and-history-in-the-epiphany-of-matthew-2/.
 My choice of ‘illuminations’ rather than ‘stars’ also deserves explanation: the Greek is phoster rather than aster which, while very similar, are not identical. While Paul almost certainly has some Jewish scriptures in mind here – principally Daniel 12:3 – it is intriguing that he departs from the Greek translation of Daniel with phoster rather than aster.
* Another use for an asterisk is for an additional or a special note – often of acknowledgment. I devote this piece to my late grandmother, Frances May Royle, who recently died after a fine innings of 91 years in which she shone brightly and, I trust, now does so in a heavenly body. She had a profound appreciation for sport (particularly snooker) and a still deeper love of Jesus and his church. These are things which this blog also aims to reflect.