The Playground of Grace

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children's Games, 1560 |Oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560 | Oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


If the spiritual life were a playground, we would discover in it a lost innocence.

Everything in a playground requires a climb. For the small children, it is the low climb into the jigsaw, or the duck on a spring. For the bigger ones, the capacity to get up steps and freely slide down plastic spiral speedways onto hot sand.

Children know little fear. They cart-wheel through fountains and swing off monkey bars, only to fall on rubber tiles, bounce off, utter shrill screams of delight, and do it again. Their playfulness captivates those who watch them. And the contrast is real. Adults do not really play in playgrounds. They are the guardians of those who do, sharing in their joy.

If the soul had the simplicity, the plasticity, the freedom of a child in a playground, it would be easily be capable of the confidence and delight of trust that are necessary to faith. The problem is that the more we grow up, the more our souls are mired by sin and doubt. And the more mired they become, the less receptive they become. The less daring, less desiring, the more trapped in the fetters of fear.

If the Resurrection of the Christ is the conquest of death, it is possible to look at His Ascension as the final vindication of the kingdom of gloom.

It was not enough, it seems, for the Son of God to take on human flesh, to descend and adopt our life so as to rescue it from the finality of the grave. He wished also to take us up with Him, into the full abode of his Love. The earthy life then, is given as temporary not because our end is to finish the race here, but because our end is union with God, in whose image we live now, and whose likeness we fully inherit in the place where He dwells.

Fundamentally, a meditation on the mystery of Christ’s Ascension is a meditation on the full flowering of the mystery of the Incarnation. We cannot speak of the mystery of God taking on human flesh without finishing the story, and coming to know what He did with that human flesh.

The resurrected body is a body, albeit glorified; it is not merely the idea of a body, as our tentative modern conception of ‘reality’ would have us believe. The intimacy of Christ’s appearances to the disciples after He rose from the tomb reveals the beauty of the redirected life of the Resurrection. He ate breakfast with them, and yet walked through walls. He appears and speaks, they touch him and see the marks of his wounds, and yet He does not remain.

Each visit echoes the words He speaks to the Magdalene: “Stop holding on to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ (John 20. 17)”  He is bound to take his place in the house of the Father — there where He will prepare a place for us. In all this we see the freedom and glory that awaits us. We are called to follow where He goes: ‘I am going to to my Father and your Father’. And like the Apostles, we also are given to see ourselves in Him —  in faith we see what is meant when we profess that Christ’s incarnate life elevates our humanity, and we become His body.

God made the body not so that it could simply be the temple of the soul and then retire its services, but so that as the temple of the soul, made in His image and likeness, it too would rise again beyond the frailty and brokenness of human existence, leave behind the burden of sin, to be redeemed and delight in the joys of paradise. Our faith is rooted in the fleshly reality of human existence, and in its goodness.

Though fallen, we are not yet lost.

And so, to claim the mystery of the Ascension as the vindication of death and of its darkness is to say to this age and this time that we hope not only for the salvation of our souls, but also for the glorification of our bodies. It is to discover what we mean when we say death no longer has power over us.

On this standard of victory it then becomes possible to enter the playground of grace and leave the fetters of fear.

Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but He still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when He cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when He said: I was hungry and you gave me food. 

 Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven He is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as He is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love. 

He did not leave heaven when He came down to us; nor did He withdraw from us when He went up again into heaven.’ 

– St. Augustine, Homily on the Ascension of the Lord.

Victory awaits the fearless, not because of some superhuman heroism they possess, but because their fearlessness is grounded in the freedom of the innocent, in the knowledge that grace heals the bruises we incur as we interplay in the world’s dark ways.

It is the calling of the mature soul to embrace the full possibility of looking up to things that are above. The ignorance of our past changes into the capacity to know truth, into a love for the Truth, and finally into a vision of God.

For all the suffering, the illness, the frailty of our bodies, there is a new vision –the revelation of meaning and purpose. Fading, fleeting human experiences, prolonged pains, indescribable desire, grief, passion, love, each take on eternal significance. In each of the dimensions of our lives we are given the actual capacity participate in the work of salvation — the possibility of embracing God’s own glory. We speak of cooperating with grace, of cooperating with the redemption lavished on us. Grace, freely given us, helps nourish the desire for a share in the life of God, so that our desire is itself transformed, intensified, satisfied 

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

-Colossians 3. 1-2

Our freedom is not static, nor is it lateral, but desires more, arises to those things that are above, delights in them now, expects to dwell in the fullness of that future life and love we call beatitude. This is not vain hope. It is the gradual unfolding of the truest human good — the full flourishing of our identity as belonging to Christ. It is the divinization of our humanity. It is true communion. It is a return to innocence and joy. It is the reality of grace at work in the world. Nowhere else is there a promise like this

“Let us, then, be children no longer, tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine that originates in human trickery and skill in proposing error. Rather, let us profess the truth in love and grow to the full maturity of Christ the head. Through him the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love.”  

-Ephesians 4. 14-15

For all our cynicism and doubt, for all the manner of pretension and lightness of heart we seek in temporary satisfactions and immature delights, for all the ways we bind ourselves in our own uncertainty and fear, and allow free rule to the passions that beguile or terrify us, there is a different proposal. It is that freedom which speaks to the deepest needs of the heart, invites it to love, refuses to despair even as we may despair, and calls unto us as no one else can

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

-Matthew 11. 28-29

And so we swing no longer within the confines of earthly delusions of happiness, or leap off trampolines — those human highs of fleeting pleasure that send us down again — but even now, by grace, aim to the heavens, to that innocence of the blessed who enjoy in eternity the delights of Eden.

Anything less would be unworthy of One who took our flesh, that we might ascend to His glory.

He waits.

Come to Me.  



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