Risen to play

Resurrection (Noli me tangere) by Giotto, 1304 Taken from http://vultus.stblogs.org

As I read the Resurrection narratives in the liturgies of these days of Easter Octave, and especially in today’s “hide and seek” interchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, I cannot help but see in them all a beautiful and playful innocence. The sheer surprise and joy, spontaneous expressions of affection and astounded amazement, or the sometimes disoriented fear that springs alive during the Resurrection appearances makes me think that somehow God enjoys the childlike wonder that His deed of surpassing love has awakened in a world grown old and jaded in sin.

Playing Jesus?

The other day just before Mass, my youngest daughter was looking at the Triduum readings and asked me why Jesus is always so solemn in the Gospels, so seemingly grave. “Like,” she said, “why does he always begin sentences with, ‘Amen, Amen’? Who speaks like that?” I replied very confidently, explaining as best I could the “Amen, Amen” comment and then relied on some of Fr. James Martin’s examples in Between Heaven and Mirth, arguing that of course Jesus had a lighter, more playful side and had a sense of humor. But my brief argument, bolstered by a few examples of first century Semitic humor in the Gospels, did not convince her. She said,

Ya, sure. But I mean, you don’t hear that Jesus had fun — except of course when he was a kid. And you just never hear anything like, “And Jesus went out and played with his disciples.”

It took all my power to not burst out laughing. Not because I thought her point was silly, but because it was so deep and jarring. She said it with such sincerity that it struck my heart and formed a new and surprising insight in my mind about what a “playful Jesus” would even mean in the Gospels.

Then, as I was reflecting on all of these Resurrection Gospels, I got a vivid sense that the Risen Jesus — and so the whole New Creation he has prepared for us — must be filled to overflowing with the innocent joy of God’s eternal childhood that has been restored to humanity in Jesus. God’s desire to joyfully play with man again dawned on Easter morning, even before sunrise. Think here of Proverbs 8:30-31. What a whimsical view of God’s creative Wisdom!

I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times. Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.

Returning to today’s Gospel. Mary Magdalene, like a child, tries to wrap her arms tightly around Jesus, as if to say: “Don’t leave!” But Jesus at once tell her to stop holding on to him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. Here I don’t hear in his voice a kill-joy scold. Rather, I hear a laughing voice saying, “Not yet! Just wait till you get to the New Garden I’ve made for you. There we can play and dance and laugh in sheer joy for unending ages!”

That’s an interpretation I would never have come to without my daughter having first taught me. I, who have grown old in sin, am graced again and again through my children to see the world again through a child’s eyes.

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3

Quotables

As I often do here, I will leave you with some quotes from others that sprang to mind as I wrote this. Not sure they directly argue my point, but they at least allude to it. The first is by G.K. Chesterton, the second by David Bentley Hart. Enjoy.

It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

To see the world in the Christian way — which, as I say in the book, requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter — is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality (I almost sound Kierkegaardian when I say it that way). But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. I’m waxing quite Eastern here, I know, But that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.

11 comments on “Risen to play

  1. Brent Gordon says:

    A wonderful post. I was immediately reminded of the Sanskrit concept of divine play (lila) which is so important in much of modern Hinduism. Here the Sanskrit “lila” provides much the same double meaning as the English “play”- for the dramatic performance of the Divine on earth is inexorably intertwined with the joy and lightness of a child’s play.

  2. Victorious Love says:

    Thank you for this post!
    I’m grateful for your daughter leading you to ponder about a “playful Jesus.” Jewels for my open heart.
    Reminded once again of the simple beauty of childlike wonder that Jesus came to resurrect in us all. His playfulness beckons us to be free. Let it be so! With faces beaming as our arms are outstretched and open wide to embrace with great anticipation:
    “Just wait till you get to the New Garden I’ve made for you where we can play and dance and laugh for sheer joy for unending ages!”

    May our hearts be grateful for the Father’s sweet monotony of love awaiting to awaken in us daily opportunities of new life. May we rise with such freedom to play in the eternal playground of our Father’s heart!

  3. Victorious Love says:

    I almost forgot… I’m banking on a giant waterslide in His eternal playground of love!

    • LOVE IT, Victorious! Whoever you are, I only can imagine you filled with gentleness, smiling and leaving a train of joy in your wake! That’s the trace your words leave in my mind whenever you write. Peace!

  4. Dustin Feddon says:

    Ah, yes, wonderful post! And I can’t but help and think of how T. Malick cinematically captures the Triune Light in the midst of the children playing in the yard and on the neighborhood street in the opening moments of Tree of Life (there’s one sublime moment in which the light is as though participating in their play). However, Malick also captures the ever thin line between child-play and when play turns violent. It’s almost Abel and Cain-like how the severity of the fall is how envy shows up and corrupts play.

    • What an exquisite insight, and what a powerful illustration of the play of the redeemed Malick gives us in Tree of Life and To the Wonder, as well as that dark side of play when play is sundered from love and disfigured into violence. Thank you for shedding this light, Dustin!

  5. WoopieCushion says:

    Such good company at Neal Obstat these Octave days!

  6. Maggie McT says:

    I’ve always thought the Resurrection stories full of humor. I mean, Jesus must have been holding back his laughter when he says to the two on the road to Emmaus, “What things?” Laughing too when he asks the poor disciples whether they’ve caught anything yet. He seems to be enjoying himself hugely in all of the stories.

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