In Matthew 18:3, Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God.” This saying has the effect of a spiritual mirror, eliciting almost as many interpretations as the number of those hearing it. What does it mean to “become like a little child”? Must one become infantile? Radically dependent upon another? Utterly naïve and unconcerned with the serious dimension of human existence? Somehow, I suspect not. The Lord came so that we might have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10), and not so that we might be stuck in a state of arrested development.
Then in what sense are we to become as little children? I suspect that it has something to do with what St. Mary’s Church experienced this past weekend. Under the expert leadership of Mrs. Regina LaFaire, Sister Pat Koehler, OP, and a wonderful team of volunteers, our parish community held the Family Funday on the grounds of Msgr. Ryan Hall on Round Hill Road. What a joy it was to see the families in our community playing, singing, sharing food and drink, and generally enjoying each other’s company. (We do these things far too infrequently in the Catholic Church at present, and these occasions are vitally important – I won’t say “serious” – to the ties that bind us as a family.)
As a priest with no children of my own, I find it a particular joy to observe the interaction between parents and their young children. Whether in the “bouncy house,” or on the baseball field, playing a game of hide-and-seek or making up rules as they go along, children pay laser-focus attention to the kind of activity that the rest of us too often dismiss as frivolous or trivial. (Is there anything trivial about a child’s laughter?) They have yet to make the “adult” distinction between work and play, for everything they do is important business. Every activity is a joy, a pleasure, an adventure. It needs no justification beyond itself. Can we say the same?
In tracing the Catholic sensibility toward play, Hugo Rahner states that “God’s activity toward and in all his creation is like that germinal, undifferentiated activity of a child, which is both work and play, both serious application and spontaneous activity for its own sake.” Of course, we must return to work on Monday morning with briefcase and laptop in hand, but a sense of play and spontaneity can, for the Catholic Christian, transform what might otherwise seem to be mere obligation and drudgery. Our job can become an exciting endeavor, a creative imposition of order, just as God undertakes in the act of creation: something to be embraced, savored, and enjoyed. In the end, an attitude of play indicates that human beings, who are held, protected, and cherished by the loving hands of God, find their end in light-hearted self-forgetfulness. Fr. Rahner understands this as a glimpse of heaven itself: “Church, grace, and liturgical action become for [the Catholic] no more than a prelude to that final carefree gaiety of the heart which he will experience one day in the everlasting game of the Beatific Vision.”