Risen to play

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

Re-post from 2014

As I read today’s Gospel, which includes the “hide and seek” interchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, I could not help but see in it a beautiful and playful innocence. All of the resurrection appearances elicit sheer surprise and joy, spontaneous expressions of affection and astounded amazement, or sometimes a disoriented fear. These make me think that somehow God is childlike wonder and that, like any good parent, He delights to see how we respond to His deeds of surpassing love.

Last week, as I sat in the pew with my family waiting for Holy Thursday Mass to begin, my youngest daughter was looking at the Triduum readings and asked me why Jesus always seemed so solemn in the Gospels. I said, “Well, He’s not always solemn.” But she replied, “Yeah, ok. How many people begin sentences with, ‘Amen, Amen’? Who speaks like that?” I tried explaining as best I could the meaning of the “Amen, Amen,” and then used some of Fr. James Martin’s examples in his book Between Heaven and Mirth to argue that of course Jesus had a lighter side and a sense of humor. But my examples of first century Semitic humor in the Gospels just didn’t cut it. She said:

Maybe, but I guess I mean you don’t ever hear that Jesus had fun — except of course when he was a kid. You don’t 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 and rang true that I nearly exploded. She said it with such sincerity that it made my heart hurt. It also formed a new and surprising insight in my mind about what a “playful Jesus” could even mean in the Gospels. Last night I was thinking of her question, and reflected on all of the resurrection appearances. I got a vivid sense that the Risen Jesus, with His sudden appearances and disappearances, must have been filled to overflowing with the thrill of God’s eternal childhood. That was fully revealed only in the humanity in Jesus — especially His Risen humanity, which was free from the shadow of death. In those appearances and disappearances we see that God’s original desire to joyfully play with man in Eden. He can’t even wait until sunrise, in case they might catch Him. It seems that on Easter morning Proverbs 8:30-31, which speaks of God’s Wisdom personified (which is identified with Jesus in John 1:1, 14), went from a mere metaphor to stark reality. Proverbs 8:30-31:

I was with him in the beginning 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.

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus only when He says her name. How awesome is that! Imagine the love in His voice when He spoke her name. Then in response she calls Him Rabbouni, which means “my little Rabbi.” Then, like a small child, Mary wraps her arms tightly around Jesus, as if to say: “Don’t leave! Stay and play!” But Jesus tells her to not cling to Him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. I don’t hear in His voice here a solemn or kill-joy scolding. Rather, I hear an excited voice saying: “Not yet! Just wait till you get to the New Garden I am going to prepare for us. There we will play and dance and laugh in sheer joy for unending ages with ‘my Father and your Father.'”

That’s an interpretation I would never have come to without my daughter having first taught me that night in the pew. I have grown old in sin, but am graced again and again through my children to see the world afresh through a child’s eyes (Matt 18:3).

I will leave you with a quote from David Bentley Hart that sprang to mind as I wrote this reflection, and leave with you a song which is about Mary Magdalene encountering the Risen Jesus.

The quote:

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.

The song:

6 comments on “Risen to play

  1. Jennifer says:

    Happy Easter, Dr. Neal! Can I just say I love your kids? *even if i don’t know them 😉 Yes! Jesus played! He teased his disciples with nicknames, he was criticized for being too much of a partier, his kin thought he had gone mad because he was wild with passion in caring for all who came to him at the beginning of his public ministry. He was not a boring old staid guy. He is playful and passionate and intense and madly in love. He’s awesome. Alleluia

  2. Nos says:

    From the mouths of babes…

  3. Carolyn Haar says:

    Dr. Neal,
    My husband used to say that Jesus must have been a lot of fun or He would not have been invited to so many parties!

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