As Monty Python would say: And now for something completely different.
At the Epiphany service last year when we came forward to receive the Lord’s supper we were also to take a colored paper star from a wicker basket at the communion rail. On the reverse of the star was a gift to us—a word for meditation during the succeeding year.
Just as the Wise Guys had followed their star to the crib at Bethlehem we were to explore what our word held for us—its role in our lives—even if it made no sense at first. Clover told us, “Just take the next star. Don’t fish around for something jazzier than patience or prudence.
Mine, I kid you not, was playfulness. I almost gagged on the elements. Class clown gets to cogitate on the cockamamie for a full year and report back. Ay caramba! What a country!
So under the auspices of playfulness and with the blessing of the clergy I’d like to share with you the results of that directed contemplation in the hope it will prove edifying and more substantive than merely allaying your fears of guilty laughter.
My first thought was that if our Christianity is a practice of joy and we believe humor is an essential mark of humanity why does the Jesus of our holy books, who we believe fully human, come off as so dour and humorless? We are told he wept. We are not told he laughed.
Art over the centuries depicts the adult Jesus many times over as the Man of Sorrows, despised and rejected of men. Only in the 1970s did there appear Laughing Jesus portraits, and few and brief they were.
We commonly allow God the Creator to know funny. A chestnut of pastoral wit goes, and do this for me please: take a close look at the person next to you in the pew on either side. Now turn and tell me God has no sense of humor.
What became of Jesus’s jokes? Experts tell us humor is cultural and we are not first century Arameans. Biblical nerds clarify further that early Hebraic humor leaned more to outlandish situations and comparisons. The punchlines of borscht belt tummulers in the Catskills are a much later development.
The parables are rife with striking oddities: the vineyard manager who pays his tardy workers as much as his timely ones; a father who celebrates the return of his wastrel son while the loyal one gets no special privileges; a man who attempts to remove a speck from another’s eye has a beam blocking his vision; the widow who gives her last penny gives more than the wealthy man who drops his coins in the temple coffers to the blaring of trumpets; and numerous others.
Not to say Jesus wasn’t quick with a quip to undo his critics. “Whose face is on this coin?”, “Caesar’s”, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Or, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” You can almost hear the rim shot in the background.
Some border on sarcasm. At the temple when told of his parents’ worry Jesus states rather smarmily, “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” To which Mary might have murmured, “Oy, the mouth on that boy! Who does he think he is?”
Or in answer to her at Cana, “They have no wine,” Jesus responds, “So what do you want me to do about it?”
From the many times he was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners can we not rightly conclude he was a welcome guest if not the life of the party? Children flocked to him—quite a trick for a sad sack. And you can bet the kids were not the well-behaved children of rosy bible pictures.
It’s safe I think to conclude that while he was not the Steven Wright of the first century neither was he the sourpuss a lot of very serious Christians propose.
How do we achieve some reasonable balance in our minds of suffering Jesus of Good Friday with human Jesus of thirty-three years who must have known and expressed true joy in even trivial matters as we do?
Laughter in scriptures presents a similar imbalance. Sara’s at hearing she shall bear a child in her old age is one of the few times laughter stems from happiness, surprise, or sudden joy. Far more often it is linked to scorn, derision, silliness, and too much wine.
We know laughter can be critical, hateful, and cruel but know just as well humor is often clever, illuminating, and all too frequently necessary. Medieval monarchs, who swiftly removed their critics’ heads, allowed the jabs of the court jester, the one person in the kingdom permitted to speak the truth to the king with impunity if it were clothed in humorous garb.
Today we need our comics and satirists to deflate the egos of politicians, celebrities, the wealthy, and, may I add, more than a few preachers. We need them to rip away the mask of fairness behind which we hide our hypocritically denied racism. We need them to restore integrity to our language—that we cannot be struggling for peace while joining everywhere in war. We need them to clear away the delusions, ignorance, and spectacle foisted on us daily by media sold out to special interests. In his day and in his way Jesus performed a similar service.
I’d like to close with an analogy to the theater—first the viewpoint of tragedy, the viewpoint which sees human existence as a massive failure. In this group I would include the “aggressive atheists” who point to the night skies or theories of cosmology not to marvel in beauty or power but as a way of showing us how by comparison we are insignificant. Others are the historical cynics who recount centuries of unrelenting gore, human folly and emphasize we shall all perish—even those with the most toys—some to ash the rest to compost.
However great our writing, our technology, our society, they challenge, “For what?” In their scheme our lives fade into absurdity through decay and death. Everything evaporates in the cosmic cataclysm. For these, whom I call modern sophists, if laughter comes at all it can only be a mad cackle, the “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But I invite you finally to consider the Christian comedy in which we believe and trust in a God who from all eternity knows the limits of our minds and knows how we can be mired in despair. This God does not abandon us to the failings of our understanding but joins with us personally to suffer despair, pain, and death. Many times before and after his resurrection Jesus assures us we shall have life everlasting and have it more abundantly, as in the wed-ding at Cana, the good wine was provided last.
Unlike in the tragic view where anything good is there and gone, in the comic God does not deceive us. We see each good marked with the sacredness from which it originates. From this view we can now make sense of God’s playfulness.
I think immediately of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the scintillating imagery of his poem God’s Grandeur when he compares the goodness of a thing and its overflowing abundance in the metaphor “the shining of shook foil,” –everything given to surprising beauty, as we see again in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: the rainbow of flowers, the symphonies of birds and whales, the mystical ecstasy of our intimate touch.
So much cries out to us, “I have made this for your delight. Drink the better wine.”
c. J.S.Manista, 2015