Faith Matters

Fr Martin Henry: What's so funny about faith?

Inspired by an old tradition known as 'the Easter laugh', Fr Martin Henry explores the theme of laughter in the Bible and Christian faith

Pope Francis shares a joke as he leaves St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin during his visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in August 2018. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire

SOME years ago, I heard for the first time about an Easter tradition called in Latin the 'Risus Paschalis', meaning 'Easter Laugh' or 'Easter Laughter'.

Apparently, in German-speaking parts of the Christian world, there was a tradition that lasted from about the 14th right up to the late 19th century, in which at Easter the priest in his sermon would try to make the congregation laugh.

Usually this would be done apparently by telling jokes or even poking fun at the powers that be, in both Church and State, and getting the congregation to laugh at the possible foibles and follies of their rulers.

The people who were the butt of such jokes seem, unsurprisingly, not to have taken too kindly to being mocked and made fun of, and maybe that was why the tradition appears to have gradually faded out in more recent times.

But when I looked a bit further into this custom, I was surprised to discover that some form of the notion of 'Easter laughter' actually goes a long way back in the history of the Church - right back, it's thought, to the time of St Augustine and a few other early Christian thinkers in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Even more surprisingly, I discovered that, while the Bible is obviously a serious book, and is rarely associated with comedy, it isn't entirely devoid of references to laughter either.

We're all familiar with the passage in Ecclesiastes, that is often quoted: "For everything there is a season... a time to weep, and a time to laugh" (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).

But apart from that very general observation, there are more specific references to laughter in the Bible that make a more direct and possibly a more profound religious point.

And these passages are perhaps more pertinent to the question and the meaning of 'Easter Laughter'.

In the very first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, we find, for example, the story of the birth of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah.

Both Abraham and Sarah are said to have laughed at God, at different times, in disbelief and finally relief, over the birth of their son, Isaac, because he was born when they were both extremely old, and hence born against all normal human calculations.

And indeed the very name, Isaac, means 'he who laughs'.

While the Bible is obviously a serious book, and is rarely associated with comedy, it isn't entirely devoid of references to laughter 

Laughter is mentioned here, clearly, in the context of something happening that completely transcends all usual human expectations and brings finally relief and joy.

To take another example, in the Book of Psalms, when talking about the powerful on earth who plot evil against God, the Psalmist writes: "He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision" (Psalm 2:4).

Here, obviously, the point being made is not that God finds it funny or amusing that human rulers should sometimes torment and oppress the people they govern, but that God knows such rulers can never ultimately be successful, because in the long run God cannot be mocked.

It is a question, in other words, of God laughing at the foolish pretensions of evil.

And in the gospels themselves, there is also a significant mention of laughter when Jesus, in St Luke's version of the Beatitudes, says: "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh" (Luke 6: 21).

A sentiment echoed in St John's Gospel, when Jesus says: "You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy" (John 16: 20).

It's important, however, to realise that such statements aren't simply well-meaning attempts by Jesus to cheer people up, if they're feeling sad or depressed.

Still less are biblical mentions of laughter meant to suggest that evil or human suffering isn't serious, or, worse still, that God is some sort of sadist who laughs at the spectacle of human suffering and might even positively enjoy it.

On the contrary, laughter, when applied to God in relation to evil, is Scripture's way of asserting God's sovereignty and rule over all creation, including the evil that occurs within it, which God will never allow to triumph in the end.

And, on the human side, as in the tradition of Easter laughter, laughter is a spontaneous human response or reaction to, or rather an expression of faith in, God's goodness and ability to fulfil and indeed to surpass human hopes and expectations and even to overcome terrible evil, against all the odds.

In the early Church, Christian teachers, like St Augustine, referred to earlier, developed the idea of God's outwitting the forces of evil and playing a joke or a trick on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead, just when the devil thought he had got rid of Jesus for good.

And from that time onwards, the tradition of Easter laughter and Easter jokes seems to have developed.

But the important point always to bear in mind is not that the Church wants to suggest that life is some kind of joke, or, still less, that with the resurrection of Jesus all suffering and pain are ended.

It's rather that Easter proclaims and teaches that the last laugh, the most important laugh, is and always will be with God, who didn't create us for a destiny of eternal pain and frustration, but for a destiny to be fulfilled gloriously beyond the grave in heaven.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the Diocese of Down and Connor.

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