Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Work and Play of the Spiritual Life: A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
The Epiphany of the Lord

January 4, 2015
The Work and Play of the Spiritual Life

We’ve all heard the phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Typically it’s something we level against workaholics in an attempt to remind them that there’s more to life than the toil of labor. And while I certainly think there’s some merit and truth to the phrase, or at least to the sentiment behind it, I think it subtly introduces too sharp a distinction between “work” and “play.” Work is seen as labor…it’s regular, productive, sometimes necessarily exhausting, it puts bread on the table, and it’s time-consuming. But play…it’s spontaneous, deliciously unproductive, relaxing, it takes the edge off life, and it’s freeing. Work and play thus become polar opposites…each with their own purposes, each done in their own time. Our friend Jack is spending too much time working and not enough time playing, so we want to help him keep things in check and to keep things balanced…to work a little less and play a little more. The kicker is, by helping Jack to keep things “balanced,” we inadvertently create a huge divide between work and play for Jack…he might work a little less, but to be as productive as he wants to be, he’ll actually have to work harder, making his work more burdensome and painstaking; and he might play more, but because he’s so tired, his play will become more about resting and relaxing. In my opinion, the answer for Jack is not for him to work less and play more…it’s about working playfully and playing workfully. By not making his work ‘playful’, and his play ‘workful’, Jack will remain ever a dull boy…he’ll only rush to submit his reports on time and then fall asleep in front of the television.

Unfortunately this false chasm between work and play extends beyond the office and the couch…it seeps into the kitchen and the dinner table; it finds its way into our relationships; and it affects our interior lives. This chasm, which essentially compartmentalizes work and play, can choke the life right out of our spiritual lives just as fast it can make Jack dull. The spiritual life must be an admixture of work and play, in a full and comprehensive sense. Though remaining separate and distinct, the work and play of the spiritual life must learn to dance together in harmony. Our spiritual lives require the regularity, the diligence, and the effort of work, but simultaneously the carefree spontaneity, pleasure, and relaxation of play. God cannot simply become the boss we work for…offering our prayers and worship to Him as an employee offers his employer projects and reports; nor can God simply become a relaxant…a benevolent and supreme force of good and pleasure to help us unwind from the labor of life. The spiritual life is about relationship…a true labor of love, that becomes as productive as work and as enjoyable as play.

Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany, when the Christ Child’s divinity shone forth into the world and was made manifest to the Magi. This manifestation is mind-blowing…that God could be a baby and that a baby could be God. So explosive was this mystery that it drew the wise men in from afar…they could not help but come and see what was happening for themselves. They toiled and labored to make their journey, and upon reaching the Divine Child they became overjoyed…not because of a spectacle, but because of a Person. They prostrated themselves and paid Jesus homage, giving Him gifts…but they didn’t remain hunched over and on bended knee, becoming as lifeless as nativity figurines. There’s no doubt in my mind that these men, whom tradition calls Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, would have done with Jesus what any sane person would do with a little child…they would have picked Him up and held Him in their arms bouncing Him up and down, they would have engaged in games of peek-a-boo and would have made funny faces to make Him laugh…they would have played with the Christ Child, because that’s what you do with babies: they demand all your effort, and your tireless labor, but they also demand your playfulness. This exchange between the wise men of the world and the little God-Man shows exactly what the spiritual life looks like and how it’s carried out.

If we spend all of our time in the toil and labor of the spiritual life, we will miss the awesome enjoyability of our God. At the same time, if we only play with our spiritual lives and do not work at uncovering, through steadfast prayer and study, the awesome mysteries of God, then our playfulness will be fruitless and we’ll soon grow bored. Drawing from the example of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, let’s give Christ all we got…all of our effort, all of our labor, and all of play. When we both revere and enjoy our God, it is then that we can truly love Him. All work and no play will surely make us dull. All play and no work will soon leave us bored. But all work and all play will make us full.  

The Blessing and Distribution of Epiphany Chalk

One of the many fruits of a spiritual life marked by robust work and joyful play is the birth of Catholic culture and traditions…rituals that, infused with the work of prayer, allow us to playfully live out the mysteries of our faith. One such tradition, that goes back many centuries, is that of “Epiphany Chalk.” During the season of Epiphany, priests give to the faithful some blessed chalk which is used to inscribe over the lintels of their doors a blessing for the New Year. The first two digits of the new year are written…in this case “2 and 0”…followed by the initials of the three Magi…+ C +M + B +…followed by the last two digits of the new year…in this case “1 and 5.”

I would invite one member from every household to come forward to receive this blessed chalk. You’ll find on the packages all of the necessary instructions to carry out this beautiful tradition. I would also recommend making this a great opportunity for a little bit of evangelization – invite yourself over to a friend’s house and share your chalk with them, blessing their doors and their homes. 

May the example of the three Magi always inspire us to live deep spiritual lives marked by hard work and enduring play.

Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God, this creature chalk to render it helpful to men. Grant that they who use it in faith and with it inscribe upon the entrance of their homes the names of Yours saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession enjoy health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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