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The Crackling of Thorns Under a Pot
Laughter and the Christian Life
If given a choice between rejoicing and weeping, I much prefer the old fashioned belly laugh. But this often causes some critics to stumble and doubt whether I am a very serious man. Admittedly, I try not to take myself too seriously and I usually treat my critics in kind. They seem to be under the impression that if laughter is a potent medicine then some of us seem to have overdosed on it.
The more morose among us will sometimes say something like, “It is all very well to talk about the joyfulness of Christian living, but does not the Bible warn us about inappropriate mirth? After all, the apostle Paul tells us to not have anything to do with "coarse jesting," and Solomon in his great wisdom said that the house of mourning was better than laughter. So what about it?” Not too infrequently one of my more dour interlocutors will send a message in order to tell me to quit being such a goof (Eph. 5:4), so why not heed this word in due season?
Some of these counterexamples are easily addressed. When Paul prohibits coarse jesting, he is simply rejecting the kind of vulgarity that deals with bodily functions—bathroom humor of the kind which is so tempting to eight-year-old boys (scatologically minded Luther hardest hit), or various forms of bawdiness. The word is eutrapelia, which refers to ribaldry or low joking. It does not refer to humor per se.
Now humor depends in large measure on the element of surprise, and when someone is not very funny, it is fairly easy to substitute the shock of a violated taboo for the surprise of a clever verbal twist. This kind of coarseness surrounds us on every side—sitcoms constantly go for the cheap laugh through jokes about sex because it is relatively easy to do. While some prunes act as though anything funny is the moral equivalent of "the one about the farmer's daughter," this should be set aside as more of a personal problem than anything else.
Another concern which some have with humor deals with a particular kind of humor--i.e. sarcasm or irony at the expense of someone else. Paul says that every word which is spoken ought to be for the edification of the hearer. "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers" (Eph. 4:29). The apostle here prohibits rotten or decayed words (the word is sapros). Our talk should not be putrid. The contrast to such corruption is speech which brings grace to the hearer.
The standard for evaluating whether or not this is happening is Scripture, not standards of nineteenth century drawing room decorum. Measured by this standard, we see that Paul most certainly does not prohibit vigorous or sarcastic speech—as he himself displays on more than one occasion. It was he who expressed the desire that those who were so enamored of circumcision would go the whole distance and lop the thing completely off (Gal. 5:12). It was he who taunted the Corinthians for putting up with fools so gladly, being so "wise" themselves (2 Cor. 11:19). Paul was not a teacher who would punch them out--which is why they found him weak and intolerable (v. 20-21). Those familiar with his writing know he used this kind of forceful speech both within the church and without it.
The Lord Jesus liked to deliver His taunts to the personal mailboxes of respected theologians. He would call them all kinds of things—decorated gravesites (Matt. 23:27), visually-impaired, sight-seeing tour guides (Matt. 15:14), camel-swallowing contortionists (Matt.23:24), and so on.
So for he who disputes the verbal standards set and established for us by Scripture, we must say, with all due respect, and with concern for the whole man, that this selfsame one is a knucklehead.
Solomon's admonition is a more difficult case. He says, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Ecc. 7:2-4).
Wisdom is in this case set across from an empty comedy, comedy pursued as an end in itself—hollow laughter, "the crackling of thorns under a pot" (v. 6). The mirth rejected here by Solomon is the laughter of fools, laughter which has not been tempered with the sorrow which comes from the house of mourning. It is there, in the home of the dead, that we learn we are mortal, and we learn that life under the sun is vain. When we learn this, God gives the gift of joy.
Solomon does not contrast wisdom with the deep satisfaction and joy, issuing in laughter, which comes as the gift of God. He simply rejects that type of laughter which is froth. Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes he shows that a deep and abiding joy is the gift of God. "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works. Let your garments always be white, and let your head lack no oil. Live joyfully with the wife . . . [but now notice the foundation] whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity" (Ecc. 9:7-9a). The person who receives this kind of wisdom and rejoices has learned in the house of mourning. The result is grave dignity with a merry heart. For Christians, there is a deeper laughter because there is yet a higher wisdom—the promise of life beyond the sun—the Hebrew philosopher’s sanctified nihilism notwithstanding.
We laugh because the gospel is deep comedy. A comedy in the classical sense refers to a drama that ends well, as opposed to a tragedy. As I have noted elsewhere,
...Someone has said that the gospel is the great paradox which declares that nothing is really as it seems to be. I think that this is exactly wrong. In truth, the gospel is the great parody which reconstitutes the very nature of reality. Thus, preaching the gospel is a participation in the creativity of the Divine Imagination in which we call things that are not as though they were. And by the Spirit’s power, it becomes so. The result of such preaching is the joyful laughter of souls who believed the unbelievable. We become sons of Sarah rather than children of the bondwoman. Isaac’s promise is born afresh in our hearts.
Consider the insanity we declare with wild abandon: Every father’s son enters this world as a corrupt thing; a recapitulation of the old Adam. Whereas, in the incarnation the Father’s Son enters the world as a Holy Thing; a brand new Adam, through whom the original curse is reversed. After which, every movement of Jesus turns the waters of tragedy into the wine of astonishment—the wine of comedy. In Christ, temptation stumbles and falls; Torah is transfigured; the temple is rendered obsolete; Gentiles become true sons of Abraham; perpetual sacrifice meets its terminal end; an instrument of death becomes the basis for life; the supreme act of injustice becomes the ultimate demonstration of justice; unwilling men become unwitting pawns in the plan of God; “It is finished” comes to mean “I’m just getting started”; veils are rent and humanity is put back together; death dies by his own hand; a crushed serpents cries “I did my worst”; a stone cries out, “I did my best”; an empty tomb becomes the Ark of Testimony; mourning is turned into dancing; ashes are exchanged for beauty; garments of praise replace a spirit of heaviness; and sinners become saints. This is deep comedy indeed.1
Laughter is inaugurated eschatology. To laugh is to plow in hope. Laughter in the face of recalcitrant unbelief is a revolutionary act of faith. To laugh is to refuse sorrow, death, and despair to have the final word.
When God promised Abram and Sarai a child they couldn’t help but find the prospect a little bit funny. They giggled in unbelief but God too seems to have displayed a sense of humor. Don’t overlook the additional syllables that God adds to the names Abram and Sarai: they become AbrAHam and SarAH. An onomatopoeic “Ha-Ha!” And when the boy was born they named him “Laughter” of course.
By faith, we all share in Abraham and Sarah’s festal joy over a Son given to us despite our natural inabilities and spiritual barrenness. We are able to say with her: “God has made me to laugh; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6). As Joseph Ratzinger observed,
...Jesus is both the lamb and Isaac. He is the lamb who allowed himself to be caught, bound, and slain. He is also Isaac, who looked into heaven; indeed, where Isaac saw only signs and symbols, Jesus actually entered heaven, and since that time the barrier between God and man is broken down. Jesus is Isaac, who, risen from the dead, comes down from the mountain with the laughter of joy in his face. All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy—this laughter of redemption: If you see what I see and have seen, if you catch a glimpse of the whole picture, you will laugh! (cf. Jn 16:20).2
Employing the figure of Isaac, Ratzinger ties laughter together with the resurrection of Christ. This is unsurprising given that the Church has long considered laughter an appropriate response to the overthrow of death. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostum preached an Easter homily that noted how Easter mocked hell and, by extension, the devil. Around the same time, St. Gregory Nyssa also wrote an Easter homily called “The Three-Day Period of the Resurrection of Christ.” In it, he said Christ purposely concealed his true identity from Satan when he died. So the devil, thinking Jesus was just another man, swallowed the bait and took Jesus into hell. Too late, Gregory said, Satan realized his mistake. By then, he had admitted the light of Christ into the dark, infernal abode. That meant that Satan had destroyed his own kingdom. The power of God prevailed, even in hell, and God had the last laugh.
This led to a widespread practice throughout medieval Christendom. Again Ratzinger,
In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus paschalis, the ‘Easter laughter.’ The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with a joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed?3
Our evangel is inherently comical. There really is truth in jest. And the freedom to laugh belongs to those who’ve been liberated by it.
Yet, such joy is not monopolized by the starry-eyed optimist who, either by some quirk of disposition or some adamantine naïveté, looks toward the future with unblinking cheerfulness. St. Paul characterizes down-to-earth believers as those who continue in prayer, are patient in tribulation, and most of all “rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:12). Hope is God’s gift to the pessimist. Hope is an expression of divine irony—God telling the punchline in the middle of the joke. Just so, every Christian can rightly be called Isaac, “for ye will laugh” (Lk. 6:21).
J. Brandon Meeks, The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition
Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology
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