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 Martin, 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.
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!