I spent too much time in graduate school in the 1980s. One semester I submitted a paper entitled “Serving God” on the theology of tennis. I wrote that playing the game was a sacred dance, a graceful way of hoping, holding and opening to the deep holiness contained in every moment of time: “to serve, receive, and return bright vehicles of meaning.” I concluded by saying that “the only difference between tennis and theology is that “in tennis love means nothing and in theology it means everything.” The paper got a passing grade and almost forty years later I still believe it.
For I believe that’s what every human journey looks like in the lens of the life of Jesus and the way he moves to celebrate his Eucharist. And perhaps that old paper need be revisited in a world where we watch and wait, with the Corona virus, while churches are closing and spiritual communion is offered online and on television. For if tennis means “serve, receive, return,” then maybe Jesus means “take, bless, break, share,” and that might be a good game for the plague year. Even if we can’t gather around the altar like we are used to, we can still connect with Christ in the very body and blood we share, in the sacrament of any present moment, in the here and now . We can commune where we live and move with that underlying Love — larger than the creation, seen in Jesus, willing to meet with us in every breath taken up and let go.
In the original cast recordings Jesus takes up his life and lets it be blessed with an ever-enlarging understanding of light, love, charity, compassion, companionship. And his hopeful intention makes the world different. Love breaks down or through any situation, for anyone, anywhere, here and now, whatever the end may be — and opens the way up in sharing that life and death action with Jesus’ community, with us all.
So, just as you play tennis with “serve, receive, return,” you can join Jesus with “take, bless, break, share.” It’s a dance you can do on the court, round the altar, at dinner, in bed: wherever and whenever life turns around and the road looks new or the destination might be deadly. Because anybody can go a long way with those moves: taking up life and looking with love on where to go next, being blessed by the hope of a reality that’s bigger and better than we know, being willing to break open and share some new understanding of what can come in the compassionate love that just might be found in the middle of all this demanding mysterious existence. Everything’s included; every purpose, passion, plague. There’s room for all.
You almost don’t require faith or religion for this one. Thomas Merton quotes Meister Eckhart to the effect that “we should have such poverty [I’ll say a radical simplicity]… that there is no place left for God.” No place for holiness except an unreserved and common emptiness which is somehow full. It is a parable or paradox for the present moment, somehow contained or reflected in the rhythm of a quiet breath taking in and letting go. And this is not unlike tennis. I still remember the unspeakable joy of a sustained rally at net — when every sense of your body, of the ball, racquet, court, net, light and air and the opponent opposite all reconcile into one momentary and timeless dancing brilliance and you see and feel and know the game is love and love is everything.
I am not any kind of consistent meditator but I also know something like that can happen in contemplative prayer. Breakthrough moments when you realise that going with the flow, quietly acknowledging the distractions, victories, that inevitable resignation, is its own renewal. It’s like realising that the person who loves you the most (who you love the most) is going to provide the most wildly frustrating and wonderful moments of your life. There’s no place left to go after that. It’s a very simple homecoming.
Because it just may be that faithfully playing the game under the given conditions is going to ensure that every moment might be a winner. If there is no place else left for “God” to work, then “God” might have to be anywhere. Jesus says, “The one who saves their life will lose it and the one who loses their life will save it” and Kris Kristopherson writes, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Maybe Jesus means freedom, maybe Jesus means losing, maybe Jesus just means love in the last place you’d look. Even in the present moment, in this terrifying predicament, love leads us on.
Don’t give up. Keep watching television. Be social on media. Find new creativity in keeping community. But be assured that the tradition and family of Jesus has made wider turns than this in the past and is the better for it now, will be again. We won’t let that cup pass. Just take the body and blood of the present moment, of your greatest hopes and fears, of here and now. Serve, receive, return. Take, bless, break, share.