It’s funny where you can learn a lesson and catch a glimpse of the divine. Recently in a grocery store I witnessed this incident:
A young girl, probably around 16 years of age, along with two other girls her own age, came into the store. She picked up a grocery basket and began to walk down the aisle, not knowing that a second basket was stuck onto the one she was carrying. At a point the inevitable happened, the basket stuck to hers released and crashed to the floor with a loud bang, startling her and all of us around her. What was her reaction? She burst into laughter, exuding a joy-filled delight at being so startled. For her the surprise of the falling basket was not an irritation but a gift, an unexpected humour happily fracturing dram routine.
If that had happened to me, given how I’m habitually in a hurry and easily irritated by anything that disrupts my agenda, I would probably have responded with a silent expletive rather than with laughter. Which made me think: Here’s a young girl who probably isn’t going to church and probably isn’t much concerned about matters of faith, but who, in this moment, is wonderfully radiating the energy of God, while, me, a vowed religious, overly serious priest, church minister and spiritual writer, in such a moment, too often radiate the antithesis of God’s energy, irritation.
But is this true? Does God really burst in laughter at falling grocery baskets? Doesn’t God ever get irritated? What’s God’s real nature?
God is the unconditional love and forgiveness that Jesus reveals, but God is also the energy that lies at the base of everything that is. And that energy, as is evident in both creation and Scripture, is, at its root, creative, prodigal, robust, joy-filled, playful, and exuberant. If you want to know that God is like look at the natural exuberance of children, look at the exuberance of a young puppy, look at the robust, playful energy of young people, and look at the spontaneous laughter of sixteen-year-old when she is startled by a falling basket. And to see God’s prodigal character, we might look at billions and billions of planets that surround us. The energy of God is prodigal and exuberant.
Then what about the cross? Doesn’t it, more than anything else, reveal God’s nature? Isn’t it what shows us God? Isn’t suffering the innate and necessary route to maturity and sanctity? So isn’t there a contradiction between what Jesus reveals about the nature of God in his crucifixion and what Scripture and nature reveal about God’s exuberance?
While there’s clearly a paradox here, there’s no contradiction. First, the tension we see between the cross and exuberance is already seen in the person and teachings of Jesus. Jesus scandalized his contemporaries in opposite ways: he scandalized them in his capacity to willingly give up his life and the things of this world, even as he scandalized them equally with his capacity to enjoy life and drink in its God-given pleasures. His contemporaries weren’t able to walk with him while he carried the cross and they weren’t able to walk with him either as he ate and drank without guilt and felt only gift and gratitude when a woman anointed his feet with expensive perfume.
Moreover, the joy and exuberance that lie at the root of God’s nature are not to be confused with the bravado we crank up at parties, carnival, and Mardi Gras. What’s experienced there is not actual delight but, instead, a numbing of the brain and senses induced by frenzied excess. This doesn’t radiate the exuberance of God, nor indeed does it radiate the powerful exuberance that sits inside us, waiting to burst forth. Carnival is mostly an attempt to keep depression at bay. As Charles Taylor astutely points out, we invented carnival because our natural exuberance doesn’t find enough outlets within our daily lives, so we ritualize certain occasions and seasons where we can, for a time, imprison our rationality and release our exuberance, as one would free a caged animal. But that, while serving as a certain release valve, is not the ideal way to release our natural exuberance.
When I was a child my parents would often warn me about false exuberance, the exuberance of wild partying, false laughter, and carnival. They had this little axiom: After the laughter, come the tears! They were right, but only as this applies to the kind of laugher that we tend to crank up at parties to keep depression at bay. The cross, however, reverses my parents’ axiom and says this: After the tears, comes the laughter! Only after the cross, is our joy genuine. Only after the cross will our exuberance express the genuine delight we once felt when we were little, and only then will our exuberance truly radiate the energy of God.
Jesus promises us that if we take up his cross, God will reward us with an exuberance that no one can ever take from us.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.