Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Games We Play

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

Picture: cc Lubomir Simek

My dear friends, do you play any games? What games do you play? Perhaps some of us may play sporting games, like soccer, or tennis, or golf. Some others may play computer games. Either on our own or with others. Online or off. Or how about games of chance? Like poker or blackjack. Bingo or mahjong? But then again, especially here in Singapore, I’m sure there are also many of us, myself included, who will say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?!

When we say this, we are, of course, thinking of games as nothing more than pastimes. Something we engage in only when we have nothing else better to do. And yet, isn’t it true that it is possible to play games not just as pastimes, but with great passion? Aren’t there games that can actually take over a person’s whole life? For better or for worse?

I’m reminded of that news report on BBC Travel a few days ago, which tells the story of Marottichal, a remote jungle village in northern Kerala state, in India. Where the game of chess has become hugely popular. Out of a population of 6,000, it is said that no less than 4,000 people in Marottichal play chess everyday. Indeed, the report paints a warm inviting picture of groups of people gathered all over town to play chess. Or to watch it being played. They gather in the teashop and at the bus stop. At home and in school. How exactly did this passion for chess begin?

Apparently, about 50 years ago, a man named Unnikrishnan introduced the game to the village. Where it spread, with very positive effects. For, before the arrival of chess, people were playing games of a different, much darker, sort. The village was rife with alcoholism and illicit gambling. Chess changed all that. The report says that miraculously the game’s popularity flourished while drinking and gambling declined. Asked to account for the game’s popularity, Unnikrishnan credits its close connection with life. Chess helps us overcome difficulties and sufferings, he says. On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life.

The experience of this Indian village of Marottichal is not unlike what we find in that unnamed Samaritan town in the first reading. Just as Unnikrishnan introduced a new game of chess, so too does Philip proclaim the new message of the gospel. And the Samaritans respond in much the same way that the villagers of Marottichal did. And with similar effects. We’re told that they united in welcoming the message Philip preached. As a result, miracles begin to happen. Darker, more sinister, games are given up. Their bad effects overcome. Unclean spirits are driven out. Paralytics and cripples find healing. This is what happens when a good game is adopted with wholehearted passion. When it is allowed to become more than just a pastime. When the gospel is generously received, it changes lives. Bringing with it great rejoicing.

Isn’t this also what the second reading encourages us to do? To view the message of the gospel not just as a meaningless pastime. An irritating distraction from the more serious business of daily life. Something we grudgingly engage in only one or two hours a week. Instead, we are told to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts. To welcome the Crucified and Risen One, much  like how the villagers of Marottichal embraced the game of chess. With open heart and unrestrained passion. Allowing Christ to gradually take over every aspect of our lives. Filling even our sufferings with meaning. For if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.

And, when we do this, when we generously receive the Lord with passion, we experience something truly miraculous. The same thing that Jesus promises his disciples in the gospel. The experience of the ongoing presence and power of Christ himself. And of his Spirit. A presence and a power that remains with us even and especially in times of darkness. When we may feel like how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was taken away from them. Like orphans. Abandoned and alone. Left to face life’s challenges on our own. But we are not alone. The presence and power of Christ, in the Spirit, remains. Assuring us that, even in our darkest moments, we continue to be held in the warmth of God’s gentle embrace.

But this experience is promised to those who do their best to remain in the love of the Lord. By wholeheartedly keeping his commandments. That is, by passionately playing the gracious game that Jesus came to teach us all. The same serious yet joyful game that we gather to play at every Mass. The powerful miracle-working game of the Lord’s Dying and Rising. We experience God’s presence in our lives when we play this game with at least the same passion with which those villagers of Marottichal play chess. When we allow its principles to rule our hearts. The same principles that the Lord embodied when he laid down his life so that we might live. We need to let these same principles, this same Lord, permeate our lives. Order our priorities. Enrich our relationships. Heal our hurts. So that we can reach out and share that same joyful healing, that same powerful presence, with others around us.

Of course, there will very likely be those of us who may be tempted to say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?! And yet, isn’t it true that even those of us who may feel this way are actually playing games of a certain sort? Even if we may not think of them as games? All the different things that keep us so very busy at every moment of every day. Apparently serious things that supposedly have to do with real life. By busying ourselves in this way, aren’t we playing by the rules of certain unacknowledged games? Games that may have to do with buying and selling, for example. Or popularity and pride. Or insecurity and anxiety. Envy and greed. Games that may suck out of us the very joy of life. Leaving us feeling empty and broken. Without quite understanding why.

Could it be that it is especially for people like this that Christ died and rose again? Could it be that this is why we celebrate Easter? To allow ourselves to re-learn the game of Christ and of his Cross. To re-experience the great rejoicing that comes to those who play it with passion. To re-commit ourselves to sharing its powerful miraculous effects with those around us.

My dear friends, on this 6th Sunday of Easter, what games are you playing today?

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