Easter Joy and Holy Joking

Lenten worship calls us to carry, ponder and release heavy emotions. We sing sombre hymns of ashes, thorns, tears and blood. We wave palm branches in triumphant welcome. But soon after our hosannas comes the heaviest day of all – that Friday when we dwell on Christ’s pain and what it purchased … when we tremble, tremble, tremble. Finally, though, finally that glorious lift of a Sabbath arrives, and we can celebrate a living Saviour. “Christ is risen!” we exclaim, and enter into Easter week with glowing hearts.

But for some Christians the emotions of Lent and Easter culminate in a different way – not only with joyful choruses and liturgies, but also with…actual laughter. In some churches, a pastor will add jokes to either the Easter Sunday sermon or to the message of following week. Church members will get in on the humour, too, by sharing jokes and amusing stories. And some believers will even hold Easter week parties, playing games and eating party food.

I have never experienced these Eastertide traditions of laughter – nor have the fellow church members I’ve canvassed. Even if not typical to my denomination, however, you can be assured that there are brothers and sisters around the world partaking in them this very year.

Although these traditions may be new to you, they are far from modern. They were set in motion hundreds of years ago by a Bavarian monk.

As the story goes, this monk was pondering the astonishing emotional cycle of Holy Week, from its solemn observances to its incredible end – Easter resurrection. “What a surprise ending,” he thought. He was then hit with a new insight that caused him to erupt in hearty laughter, shattering the silent contemplation of his fellow monks. “Don’t you see,” he cried, “It was a joke! A great joke! The best joke in all history! On Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, the devil thought he had won. But God had the last laugh on Easter when he raised Jesus from the dead.”

The Sunday after Easter then became known as a “Day of Joy and Laughter.” In monasteries, and eventually in Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches and homes, God’s joke on Satan was celebrated by believers with joke-telling. After the message, the priest or minister would come down among the congregation and lead them in a comical story or song. The tradition of “Risus Paschalis” – Latin for “Easter Laughter” – was born.

It was not without opposition. In the 17th and 18th centuries, church leaders – including Pope Clement X – prohibited “Risus Paschalis,” believing it allowed offensive abuses to God’s Word. Still, the tradition continued on in some communities.

I am not surprised that “Easter Laughter” faced resistance in the early Church. Nor would I be surprised to hear that some are hesitant about and critical of these traditions today. Humour has a tricky role in the spiritual life. Reverence is often associated with silence, order and contemplation. Even gentle, tasteful joking can seem out of place in a religious context – especially during Lent.

So where does humour fit in with a penitent heart? Can laughter really be an act of worship, reverence, and praise that fits faithfully within the Lent and Easter season?

I have come to think so. Just a few weeks shy of this Lent’s beginning, I finished a book that proved humour may well be most appropriate in Easter celebration. The book, Between Heaven and Mirth, is written by James MartiBC_BetweenHeavenandMirth_rtn, a Jesuit priest longing to change the negative view of humour so often found in religious circles. Through personal anecdotes, scriptural stories and insights from spiritual leaders, Martin invites believers to a more mirthful faith life – one that embraces humour, laughter and joy as spiritual gifts. Oh yes, he also includes actual jokes.

While Martin is an advocate of “holy humour” year round, the timing of my reading had me especially considering its role in Easter. I know there’s no one way for the Body of Christ to express joy, as we are a diverse collection of customs, traditions and styles. I am now certain, however, that “Easter laughter” can be a blessed way to orient our hearts to joy after a heavy season.

As Martin repeatedly says, joy can be a powerful way to bear witness to our resurrection hope:

For Christians, an essentially hopeful outlook shows people that you believe in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death, and in the power of love over hatred. Don’t you think that after the Resurrection Jesus’s disciples were joyful? … Joy reveals faith.

I, too, fully believe that a joke can be a testament of grace – a silly song, a revelation of salvation.

Reflecting on intentional humour has also shown me how unintentional humour can bless our lives. Quite simply, moments of joy and laughter find us even when we have not specifically invited them into the room. This is true in all seasons, but especially important to remember, I think, when rising from the low, often emotionally draining posture of Lent.

Perhaps embracing a spirit of “Easter laughter” can be as simple as remembering or sharing an amusing memory – especially if it happened during Lent’s solemn 40 days. So here’s one of mine: A couple of years ago, while on an overseas semester of university study, I took part in a Lenten worship service in Bath, England. We sang those sombre songs and heard a sermon on events surrounding Christ’s death. We also celebrated communion together, a sacrament especially heavy in the seasons of ashes.

Instead of the small cups of juice and neatly cubed bread used in my church, we passed around one large cup and tore pieces from loaves of bread – great big crusty loaves common in European countries. Unaccustomed to such bread, I hurriedly broke my piece when a loaf came my way. And what a piece it was! Much, much larger, than those my friends had taken, I realized with embarrassment.

When the time came to eat, I tried to gobble my piece down discreetly. But there was no way I could finish it in the time others had. No way I could prevent flakes of bread from raining down all over my lap. And no way I could stop the giggles coming from my friends beside me – or those shaking my own shoulders.

After the service, as we were discussing lunch, one friend looked at me and said, teasingly: “Well, you don’t need to worry, you’ve already had yours.” And I have laughed about my ridiculous hunk of bread many more times since.

As I picture myself in that church, with a lapful of broken bread, I know that Christ’s body was honoured, not offended, by that unintentional instance of levity. I am grateful for the strange communal delight it sparked. In its own absurd way, even this small moment speaks to the “big joke” of God defeating evil by the breaking of his Son’s body – a breaking that give us all access to our Father’s glorious joy.

And so making Easter Week a time of levity makes sense to me – whether we do so in church services and through parties, in contemplation or through conversations with friends. All are ways to see the divine comedy in our story of deliverance.

In this Lenten season, I also carry with me a story of “holy humour” from Between Heaven and Mirth – an anecdote recounted to Martin by British writer Margaret Silf. Its premise is reminiscent of the two Marys journeying to Christ’s tomb. 6786442460_ce550c5e1f_z

Two friends were mourning a mutual friend who had died, missing her terribly. So they went to their friend’s grave and planted what they thought were daffodil bulbs. All winter they grieved and waited. Then, in the spring, they returned to the grave to pay their respects. But, instead of beautiful bright flowers, they discovered a beautiful crop of … onions!* “They laughed until they cried,” says Silf. “And they were convinced their friend was right there laughing with them.”

I am convinced it is the same with Christ – that he laughs with us, and in our laughter makes his comfort known. So all-encompassing is God’s sense of humour that even accidents and acts of lament can sometimes be occasions for joy.

Lent’s plunge into the depths followed by Easter’s unprecedented rejoicing reminds us that, whether in sorrow and in gladness, we stand before the Risen Christ. Its emotional arc allows us to make the journey together – all of us “in on” the triumphant “joke” of God’s victory.

It does not matter, then, whether or not we officially practise “Easter laughter” as a religious tradition, but only that we live out this spirit of holy levity in our lives. That we recognize humour as a means of sensing the sacred. That we laugh in anticipation of the day when all our joyful sounds will never need come to an end.

(Christian Courier feature, March 26th, 2012 issue)

* The fiction writer in me just wants to snag this onions image to play with—especially because onions can also produce involuntary tears!

29 thoughts on “Easter Joy and Holy Joking”

  1. I began to read this and thought of “Between Heaven and Mirth,” and of course, there it was!

    In about 6 or 7 weeks time, I will have the gift of hearing Fr. Martin speak, I can’t wait.

    What a gift that you stopped by my blog, because I am delighted to “meet” you and read through yours. Peace, good and laughter!

  2. Hi. I originally stopped by to thank you for following my blog, but, of course, I had to stay and read this post. I’m delighted by it because I have believed for a long time that our Lord Jesus was a man of laughter who truly enjoyed life with His family and His disciples. Yes, He had a serious ministry to fulfill, and His heart broke with compassion for those who needed Him so desperately, but He also rejoiced in all the beauty of His Father’s creation, in love and comradeship, and in the victories that people received under His ministry. I believe He laughed out loud when the blind received their site, the crippled walked, and Lazarus came stomping out of that tomb. I also believe He laughs now — with us — and for us. I know He has revealed to me a time or two when He has specifically laughed at the devil who thought he had accomplished a victory in my life, but the Lord knew that I would overcome it with His help.

    I too have been fascinated by studying about the Easter Week celebrated in so many other cultures. It’s true we don’t celebrate it in most of our churches in the U. S., but like the real 12 Days of Christmas, I believe it needs to be re-instituted. I did that this past Christmas and let all my friends and family know that I was celebrating the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany as thoroughly as I did the week prior to December 25. I enjoyed special meditations and times of prayer and gave a gift each of the 12 days to different individuals as the Lord led. Everyone who was included in that experience truly appreciated it. I plan to do the same thing this year during the week following Easter. I just believe that we are missing out on a great experience of celebration when we sort of “close down” the festivities with Christmas Day (or News Year’s Day) and Easter Sunday. So thank you for bringing this experience to people’s attention. Perhaps others will decide to add these kinds of celebrations to their own lives as well.

    May the Lord make His face to shine on you.

  3. Thank you for this beautiful and thought provoking article, the stories of the bread and the onions brought smiles and tears to my eyes, I especially love your ending…
    “That we laugh in anticipation of the day when all our joyful sounds will never need come to an end.”
    Oh-for that day!

  4. Glad to connect with you Adele and a beautiful piece. Onions indeed!!

    I listen/read many teachings – I don’t remember who said what but one commented that if Satan knew what would happen after the crucifixion…he would never have let it happen. God has quite the sense of humor! Peace to you.

  5. Hello, Adele! Thank you for following my blog. What a wonderful bit of writing this is! I join those who had not heard of this tradition. It makes sense, actually. While I can see engaging in somberness up to Good Friday, it only stands to reason that we should be joyful and celebratory on Easter Sunday! “He is not here. He is risen!” Hallelujah! (With a side of onions…)

  6. Great post, Adele. I love the story about the communion bread…We have a small group of friends that get together at our house on Sunday nights for prayer, study, communion, and mostly eating. On one night, I had bought a particularly good loaf of bread from the local deli to use half for communion, and then half to go with our chicken tortilla soup afterwards (I know, sacrilege…). It was a race between my wife and sister to get to the kitchen afterwards, literally pushing to get by each other going up the stairs. I asked what the heck was going on, and my wife said, “She said she was gonna eat Jesus’ body before I could get anymore of it. I’m about to knock her out!”

    I think there was something in I Corinthians about that kind of thing…

  7. Thanks for checking my blog! I’ve just started–to take the place of that friendship I wrote about, possibly a victim of way-too-long emails, something you may relate to. I am a Christian seeker who also enjoys Judaism. You are way ahead of me in the writing realm. My interest was awakened in college by an insightful professor, then went dormant until a just-finished master’s degree in liberal studies. The question is: where do I go from here??

  8. What an amazing piece of writing, Adele! I have always felt that same sense of sorrow and grief going into the Lenten season, and particularly Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, which we always observe with a somber 3 hour service. I think this is also aided by the fact that we are always entering Autumn at this time, and beginning to bid farewell to the fruitfulness of Summer in the Southern Hemisphere where I live (of course we then don’t have the Spring to celebrate Resurrection with, like you have, but that is another story!) So it is wonderful to read of the Resurrection Joy you have so beautifully illustrated with stories of laughter and celebration!

  9. A tradition I was unaware of, and what a marvelous tradition it is! I am sharing this with my husband and suggesting he share some laughter and mirth from the pulpit both Easter morning and after. I think laughter has every place in our celebration and rejoicing in the fact that Jesus lives! To rejoice is to take great delight in something, and to delight in something is to find high pleasure or enjoyment. What better way of delighting in God’s great grace than by laughing? Thank you for these words!

  10. You are so right about humor. I am sure that God giggles and chortles right along with it. Of course I am of a tradition that, like those monks, values laughter. St. Dominic, who founded the Dominican Order 800 years ago, was known as the Joyful Friar. So we see that as a hallmark of our charism . . . our gift to the church. Blessings of Holy Week to you. And as Desmond Tutu said, “Nothing can be more hopeless than Good Friday; but then Sunday happens. You can’t but be a prisoner of hope.”

  11. Thanks for your thoughts, Friday is such a horrible wonderful day, heightened by only Sunday. Christ is Risen Indeed.

  12. ditto the others! What a lovely blog, Adele. 🙂

    The God who created the platypus, ostrich, manatee and penguin definately has a sense of humor. Humor is sometimes described as anything that surprises with the unexpected, the Resurection surely was that!! (even though Jesus had been trying to tell us for all that time….)

    The verse about Satan having no idea what God was up to with Christ’s death is I Cor 2:8.

    Blessings everyone!

  13. Adele, I’m new to your blog. My first thought, as a Canadian living in the land of language barbarians, otherwise known as America, I’m proud to see one who “finishes” words (that’s my lit-bit snob part). I’m also pleased to find another who “plays around ” a bit with the archetypal faith norms, kicking the can, so to speak, in an effort of arousing some freshness in our thinking. This revives faith I believe (that’s the spiritual formation part). Thirdly, in reading this delightful piece I couldn’t help but think of G.K. Chesterton’s timeless statement, “if we have not mirth, we will have madness.” Moreover, Frederick Buechner wrote a provocative little book entitled, “Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.” The writer in you, as in me, would rock to it. Finally, as cheesy and unadvisable as this is (yeah, like I really give a shit!), come sit with me awhile at my other writing blog: http://www.robslit-bits.wordpress….and we’ll have fun comparing words ‘n…like, stuff…ya know?

  14. He loved that you broke off more than you could chew quickly. What a wonderful post. I too, believe Jesus loves to laugh with us. Such a glorious time. Sunday is coming! Sunday is coming!

  15. Lovely post – and I learned something new too! 🙂 The history of the church is so fascinating. And what a good reminder of the JOY of Easter & the power of a joyful heart – “Joy reveals faith.” So often we become fixated on finding “happiness” that we forget about Christ’s true peace & joy – ultimate happiness.

    Thanks for stopping by my site & for the “like”…hope to check back soon!

    Happy writing!

  16. Amen, my friend. I love the concept. I don’t believe that laughter is part of our fallen nature. It’s a glorious gift God gives us to connect with each other. Th,ks for this and for connecting with my blog. I shall be back.

  17. Thank you for stopping by my blog! I dropped by to meet you and was delighted by this post. Actually, the Sunday after Easter, both of my churches will be participating in “Holy Humor Sunday,” as it has been dubbed here. I started it last year and it was so popular that I couldn’t imagine not doing it again this year. I will have to let you know how it goes—I understand that there will be kazoos playing the Hallelujah Chorus and other delightful things.

    I have no doubt that God laughs. It is too beautiful a world to believe otherwise.

    Pace e bene.

  18. If there is one thing that Christians need to learn, it is laughter. Who likes a grumpy person? I don’t. I believe God laughs and Jesus laughed when He was doing His ministry. Its a good idea to celebrate with godly laughter after Easter. Even better, if we can laugh every single day to bring glory to God. Thanks for the post and thanks for stopping by my blog.

  19. Excellent post! I would love to have a real Easter celebration, as long as it didn’t turn into just another get-together. We just get up super early for a sunrise service and that definitely isn’t my idea of celebrating anything!

    I love your story about laughing with your friends over your giant piece of communion bread! It made me smile. 🙂

    Thanks for visiting my blog! 😀

  20. Found your “follow” this morning, and visited your site just now. Good and thoughtful writing with something important to say. Thanks for your work and effort to write faithfully. On the subject of Jesus and mirth, I’m sure Father Martin’s book takes note of passages like Luke 5:27-39 where Jesus refuses the long faces of the very religious, and gives a string of metaphors to celebrate the whole tone and tenor of his ministry. It’s all about Life with a capital “L,” healing, fine silk, new wine. Of course the way is difficult and even painful at times, sometimes for long periods; but the end result is Life full and whole. Thanks for reminding us to laugh and rejoice. I’ll look forward to following what you have to say.

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