When I was in seminary, I spent a summer serving as a student chaplain on an inpatient, locked, geriatric psychiatry floor. Along with mental health concerns, many of the patients had diseases that would, without question, shorten their lives. It could be a grim place at times--and one of the challenges of time spent on this floor was that because it was a locked unit, staff there could become somewhat isolated from the rest of the hospital.
In order to encourage the morale of the staff, the senior attending physician, would start each morning’s mandatory staff meeting with a joke.
He felt that laughter was an essential component of care giving. Laughing together encouraged a strong bond amongst the staff and added a degree of levity to our work days that benefited not only the staff, but those for whom they provided care.
We don’t laugh particularly often in church. Thomas Cranmer wrote a prayer book, not a book of knock knock jokes...but if we never find opportunity to laugh here, we stand to miss a key element of God’s relationship with us. For, as our matriarch Sarah says in Genesis, “God has made me laugh; every one who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6).
We laugh, like Sarah, at the unexpected and the surprising. We laugh at jokes and slapstick humor. When we laugh together we are united. But, there is a certain recklessness to laughter. The giddy abandon of newfound infant giggles. The stifled giggles at inappropriate moments. The snort and spray of a humorous moment and an ill timed sip. The gasping and waving of hands that occurs when we just can’t stop laughing.
One of my favorite prayers from our prayer book, found at the conclusion of the order of service for compline, petitions God to “shield the joyous”. And, I cannot help but think of that prayer when I think of the fine edge where our laughter dances beyond our control.
And, it is this sense of being overtaken, of being consumed by giddiness, by joyfulness, by joie de vie that I think of today--on this second Sunday of Easter as we continue to declare the absurd truth.
Alleluia, Christ has risen!!
Senseless, irrational, a cruel joke upon Mary at the tomb.
The empty tomb, the punch line to some absurdity.
“Where have you taken him?” she asks.
But, how was she to know the answer to this riddle of riddles? This joke of jokes. This ultimate prank upon the death dealers of the world. God has confounded the world and is it any wonder that Mary and the other disciples were likewise confounded?
I have heard people quip that “God must have a sense of humor” but when we move beyond that quip we can explore a tradition grounded in God’s joke upon death--that of Risus Paschalis, the Easter laugh. Traditions of joke telling, picnicking and pranks in the days following the first Sunday in Easter emerged as early as the 13th century. References to “Easter Monday” or “Bright Sunday” declared this time to be a raucus and joyful celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Liturgically this has been expressed in places like 15th century Bavaria through humorous sermon illustrations used specifically to give rise to laughter amongst the congregation. In the 18th century this custom was prohibited due to “grave abuses of the word of God”
And, just so you know, I hope to avoid grave abuses of the word of God...
And, thus, assuming no heresy is being preached...
I encourage us to a celebration of Resurrection grounded in surprise, in hope, in glory and in sheer joyfulness as we ponder the great gift we have been given.
Because what has happened is absurd, beyond any reasonable comprehension. Is it any wonder that in a portion of Acts that the lectionary omits for today (in the interest of saving it for Pentecost) we hear Peter explaining (in what I think is the funniest line in all of scripture),
“These men are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only 9 o’clock in the morning”
How strange the words of the disciples must have sounded to the people of Judea! Words so strange that they are all to easily attributed to drunkenness. But, in their passion and their conviction, the disciples express a truth that stands outside the bounds of what any would consider reason.
“this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
To have Jesus return from the dead following such a shameful and public humiliation upon the cross would have been counter to all forms of reason particularly in a world in which the dead usually stayed dead, and the social economy was one of honor and shame. Honor from shame and life from death would have been counter to everything Thomas would have known or believed.
It was impossible, yet it is true. Is it any wonder then that Thomas doubted?
The theologian Paul Tillich describes doubt as an integral part of our life of faith. Doubt allows that we do not know everything. That mystery exists, that there are moments beyond our comprehension. Doubt confronts us with the truth that we don’t know everything...
And, in a world where knowledge is prized and even perhaps idolized--uncertainty and doubt are all too easily seen as character flaws and impediments. But, it is Thomas’ doubt that allows him to participate in an encounter of intimacy that demonstrated unquestionably God’s power in the world. It is Thomas’ doubt that furthers the blessing of knowing without seeing.
And, it is Jesus who says “yes” to Thomas’ doubt--and the answer to that “yes” is proclamation “My Lord and My God”.
For Thomas, doubt meant that he was willing to have the conversation--to grow in faith. What would it mean to think of faith as a bold act of risk taking? To celebrate our doubts knowing that it is, in fact, our doubts that deepen our faith?
Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard writes, "The greater the uncertainty - the greater the risk the believer takes in believing - the greater the faith,"
God in Christ does not operate according to the rules of the world and Kierkegaard writes of the inverted dialectic of Christianity--hope in hopelessness, strength in weakness and prosperity in adversity. God, breaks the rules of reason and in Christ shame becomes glory and death becomes life. As Kierkegaard puts it, we must believe by “virtue of the absurd”.
Embracing absurdity runs counter to much of how we operate in the world--we are a people who explore our faith through scripture, tradition and reason. As Episcopalians we tend to be fairly reasonable! But, just showing up to church runs counter to reason in this world of ours--church where we proclaim an impossible possibility!
Which brings us to this day of silliness, this day of finding comic strips in your bulletin, this day of proclaiming the Easter laugh.
This day of rejoicing for it is the rejoicing which becomes the fruition of Jesus’ promise to his disciples “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy” (Jn 16:20).
In our limited vocabulary for the absurdity of God’s grace--laughter and silliness are a rational response to the irrational truth of the resurrection. People have said that the only things for certain in life are death and taxes--perhaps today we celebrate that the only thing we can be certain about are taxes? Oh, and the love of God, we can be certain about that as well...