Easter Play - Luke 24: 1-12
Let us pray: On this morning O Lord, take from us all that we cling to so tightly and release us, only to reveal truth we cannot see until we let go. Through the power of your resurrection, move us from death to life. And now, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
For part of church history, various traditions have formed around a quaint theme known as “Risus Paschalis,” which, translated from Latin, means “Easter laugh.” Risus Paschalis was predicated on the notion that on the first Easter, God played the biggest joke in history, on none other than the devil. God allowed the devil to kill Jesus, thereby, allowing him to think he had won, only to raise Jesus to life again on the third day. The presumption is that God has a sense of humor and on Easter we can laugh to observe the comicality of it all. Perhaps the person or people who came up with the idea were familiar with Plato’s words: “Even the gods love jokes.”
One way the Easter laugh was observed included parishioners returning to church Easter evening for a solemn celebration and evening prayers. However, during the course of the evening’s events, the clergy would regale parishioners with jokes and funny stories. The reason for this unusual practice was to contrast Easter joy with the solemnity of Lent and Holy Week. This tradition began in the 13th century and lasted until the practice was suppressed. Pope Clement X purportedly prohibited the event because of abuses that arose. Perhaps some of the clergy were just too funny. Or perhaps, the Pope was like many who think the church is no place for playing or horsing around.
Religion teacher and author Mark Quinn wrote the “Seven Key Elements of Lay Spirituality.” One of those elements is the need for play. In Quinn’s words, “Play is creative time-wasting. It relativizes the tyranny of time and the dictatorship of duty. It introduces joy into the seriousness of reality. “Play,” he continues, “is important for Christians because it requires a certain distancing from all that is usually considered important… Play is much more than diversion or exercise. It is creativity in preliminary form, the fore-runner of authentic change.” He sees it as fantasy with a purpose; a rehearsal for responsibility.
Most of us learn to play as children. Current literature about early childhood development affirms the importance of play for children’s physical, intellectual, and social development. The Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development calls it a “universal phenomenon” and a “right of childhood.” Play allows children an informal venue to process and to learn. It is a vehicle for them to grow and expand their horizons. And play, brothers and sisters, is also important for adults.
Author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown suggests that for adults, play is like oxygen. He writes, “…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing,” (psychcentral.com). Dr. Brown has for decades, studied the power of play in the lives of everyone from prisoners to businesspeople, and artists to Nobel Prize winners. He has even worked with renowned physician Patch Adams. In his studies, Brown shows that a lack of play is often identified in people with significant levels of criminal behavior and that play between couples can help rekindle relationships. Overall, Brown identifies many benefits of play in adults including the continuation of using it to learn.
Why all of the talk about humor and play? After all, those who we encounter in this morning’s Gospel lesson seem far from playful. In the Luke account Dora and I read, they are in mourning and just beginning to grasp the immense loss of their family member, friend, and teacher. When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women went to the tomb taking spiced they prepared for Jesus’ body, levity was the farthest thing from their minds. They were devastated. That is, until they found the stone rolled away, and Jesus nowhere to be found.
In an enigmatic scene, they were greeted by two men in dazzling white. This frightened the already emotionally distraught women. Then the men told them, “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’” The mysterious men told the women God’s punch line and they did not get it—though they started to. They did remember what Jesus told them. Just as they were starting to connect the dots of what had happened, they returned to the disciples to share the punch line. But the apostles thought the women had been tricked into believing an idle tail—until, Peter ran to the tomb, and was amazed.
Jesus’ resurrection, the fundamental metaphor and truth of our faith, gives us permission to laugh and to play. A fellow minister writes about a church member named Ruth. (Any resemblance to real persons or names in this congregation is purely coincidental.) “Her minister named her a ‘grandmother type.’ He said that he’d never had a conversation with her that she didn’t laugh about something. ‘She giggled all the time. Ruth was one of those people who just made you feel better.’ Her pastor said that he admired her greatly, but admired her even more once he learned her story. Ruth had been married to an avid sailor. Her husband had taught their boys to sail, and they knew their way around the family boat by the time they were in middle school. ‘Their son Phillip had just graduated from college, and he and some buddies took the boat and headed out to sea’ – out into the Atlantic off Charleston, South Carolina. The storm came out of nowhere. They never did find the boys.
Years later, her pastor – confessing that he was at the time “young and stupid” –asked her this question, ’Ruth, you are so happy now; how did you ever get over that?’ She just smiled and said, ‘…mothers don’t get over that. But I learned something when I was in the valley of the shadow. It took me a long time, but I began to see that we all have sadness. Everyone knows the dark night; everyone knows heartbreak. I know what that is like… Every day the sadness is waiting. Just waiting. I don’t know if it will come with the coffee or the paper or if it will speak to me in the grocery store or attack me from the hymns in church or penetrate my dreams. But every day I pray, ‘God, don’t let the sadness win. Let me push back the sadness, not only in my life, but in the lives of everyone I meet…’ I am happy,” she told him, “but it is an act of defiance…’” (From: “Miracles do Happen,” Sermon by the Rev. Michael Lindvall).
Now there may be some who by the grace of God have experienced little darkness in this life, and still do not laugh or play. For them, twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s words are worth pondering: "The very essence of sin is taking ourselves too seriously." But, there is a lot to take seriously out there in this world and in this life. It is amazing how fragile the set of circumstances are that make our lives possible and that allow us to live the abundant life God created us to live. No need for me to recite a list of problems that are the cause of darkness in this world. We can come up with our own lists. But the reality is, there are enough personal, social and political challenges to take anyone down.
But deep down, maybe it is in part our hope, and I believe it is something that God shows through glimpses in our lives, the darkness does not have to win. Because the stone was rolled away and the tomb empty, we can dare to play, even dare to laugh in spite of the brokenness of our world.
Maybe it is something innate to us based on how we were created. In the words or author and preacher Will Willimon, "Among all of God's creatures, human beings are the only animals who both laugh and weep—for we are the only animals who are struck with the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be."
We show up on church on Easter morning expecting Good News. And on this Easter morning, the punch line of Good News rings loud and clear. Christ is risen! By the grace of God, we can dare to laugh and we are privileged to play. They embolden us to move us forward in faith and life. At least metaphorically speaking, God played a joke on the devil, and we have benefitted. We are called, to let that grace enter our hearts and shape our lives. And we are called to pass on that Good News with our actions and sometimes words so the whole world can be let in on the joke. It’s not funny if you just keep it to yourself.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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