Laughter – Gospel Medicine
When I was a child, I loved to browse through my grandmother’s copies of the Readers’ Digest. Among the many items in this compendium was a regular page called Laughter – the Best Medicine. This was a page of jokes, funny stories and humorous incidents that brought a smile to the face.
I was reminded about the title when I discovered that the Sunday after Easter (which, rather boringly, Anglicans often call Low Sunday) has another title in some places – Laughter Sunday or Holy Humour Sunday. The idea is that one Sunday of the year is set aside as a celebration of the divine gift of laughter and joy.
It has its roots in a number of different Christian traditions. In 15th Century Bavaria, churches would celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Risus Paschalis, literally ‘the Easter laugh’. Priests would deliberately include funny stories and jokes in their sermons in an attempt to make the faithful laugh. After the service, people would gather together to play practical jokes on one another and tell amusing stories. It was their way of celebrating the resurrection of Christ – the supreme joke God played on Satan by raising Jesus from the dead. Sadly, at least to my mind, the miserable Pope Clement X banned the Risus Paschalis in the 17th century. Perhaps people were having too much fun.
Meanwhile in the Orthodox tradition, people would gather on Easter Monday to tell jokes and funny stories, and to dance and eat together. At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church has a tradition of the yurodivy, the Holy Fool, who (not unlike the role of Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear) would behave idiotically and act foolishly as a way of speaking truth to power. One imagines that modern satirical traditions emerged from the same root. G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the devil fell by force of gravity. He who has the faith has the fun.”
British people are renowned for our use of humour. Sometimes this is a way of handling an awkward social situation, of course, but there is something in our culture that values laughing and joking. It is often when we laugh that we forget ourselves for a moment. A similar thing can happen in in profound prayer or inspiring worship.
So let’s thank God for humour. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ can be seen, as older generations recognised, a supreme joke played on the forces of darkness, death and despair. So tell jokes, laugh a lot and remember the healing power – and the spiritual power of holy humour.
Here’s one that amused me this week.
A woman invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?”
“I wouldn’t know what to say,” the little girl replied.
“Just say what you hear Mum say,” the mother said.
The little girl bowed her head and said: “God, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”