So Mary Magdalene pounds on the door, and Peter opens up. She says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Peter and the rest say, “give us some good news–we could really use it.” Mary says “Christ is Risen!” The disciples are jumping up and down, hollering–finally Mary says, “Don’t you want to hear the bad news?” Peter says, “Sure, I mean what can be so bad after that ?!” Mary said, “He’s really, really ticked off about what happened to you guys Thursday night”
In 15th century Bavaria, churches celebrated the Sunday after Easter as “Risus Paschalis” (“God’s joke” or the “Easter laugh”). Priests would include funny stories and jokes in their sermons – and then after the service, priests and parishioners would play practical jokes on each other, throw water on each other (!), sing, tell jokes, and dance.
It was their way of celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Early church theologians including Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom wrote about Easter in terms of the great “joke” that God played on the powers of evil by raising Jesus from the dead.
Perhaps we haven’t heard much about Risus Paschalis because it was outlawed by Pope Clement X in the 17th century.
But theologians and philosophers have continued to be struck by the connection between humor and faith. A mentor of mine, John Ellsworth Winter, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic,[i] noting Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding, “Humor is in fact prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer…”[ii]
There is a certain vulnerability in telling a joke (Will others find it as funny as I do?) just as there is a certain vulnerability in sharing a story of faith (Will others find it as meaningful as I do?).
If you’re like me, you’re a bit uncomfortable sharing your stories of faith with people you don’t know very well: the places you’ve seen God, the persons in whom you’ve met the risen Christ.
Maybe telling a joke is a prelude to sharing a story of faith. What’s a good joke you’ve heard lately? Tell me – I’d like to hear it!
[i] Winter, John Ellsworth, “Humor and Faith,” Temple University, 1969.
[ii] Niebuhr, Reinhold, Discerning The Signs Of The Times. N.Y.” Scribner’s, 1946. pp. 111, 120-121, 130-131.