On the Gift of Laughter

One of the oldest jokes for which we have evidence goes something like this:

A slave owner returns to the man who had just sold him his most recent purchase. “That slave you sold me last week just died.” The man who sold him replied: “Hey, don’t blame me. He never did that when I owned him.”

The Philogelos, a Greek compound word for “the love of laughter” dates to about the mid-300s AD, and is an ancient collection of such funnies. This early joke book reminds us that laughter is a properly human characteristic. To be able to laugh—or, the gift of risibility (from ridere, Latin for “to laugh,” from where we get the word “ridiculous”)—is a healthy sign of maturity and the ability to see the incongruence of things.

A bit more recently than the Philogelos, I discovered Catholic Memes on the internet. For those of us who are over 18, a meme (from mimema, Greek for “that which is imitable”) is a static picture or image, usually with a cheeky comment underneath. For example, playing off the popular craze of the Ice Bucket Challenge, there is a meme of the cutest baby being baptized with the subtitle that reads: “Catholics: pouring water on people before it was cool!” Another has Veronica holding the sudarium with the face of Christ impressed upon it, with the caption: “The Original Selfie.” My favorite so far, though, is a picture of a newly elected Pope Francis in a hotel lobby, talking to the concierge who, admittedly, has a puzzled look on his face; the line underneath has the Holy Father saying, “Oh, that’s right … I checked in under a different name.” Like anything today, not all images on the internet are suitable for laughter, but such moments of smiling and chuckling often go unappreciated. Human laughter really is ultimately an argument: an argument that despite how bad things might be on any given day, we are made, not for toil and constant battle, but for perfect joy and the appropriate levity that flows from delighting in what is.

Laughter shows the mind’s ability to handle ambiguity, semitones, equivocations, double-entendre, and absurdity. As Aristotle knew, the good-humored man is found between the buffoon and the boor: the former chortles at things that are not to be laughed at, the latter never cracks a smile at the risk of showing some humanity. Aristotle dealt with laughter in his work on ethics because he knew that this capacity to chuckle is not limited to the stage or the parlor, but has a political dimension as well. Dictators do not tolerate being laughed at, or as C.S. Lewis knew, “jokes as well as justice come in with speech” (“The Magician’s Nephew,” Chronicles of Narnia). Jokes are a matter of justice. Laughter always searches out an echo because joy is a sort of good infection which, by nature, refuses to remain solely within. It is a social reality joining others at an extra-mundane level.

This is why I think, that those who understand Christ deeply, laugh best. When the divine becomes human, what else compares? This is why we Catholics especially can laugh at ourselves. We are far from the boors Aristotle warned against, because we know that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, and that, in the end, all will be well. Could anything illustrate this contrast better than the recent “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” down in Texas? Despite what one might think about “baiting” others or systematically poking fun at another religion, it is quite clear that Catholics are above murdering those who take part in, say, the local production of “Late Night Catechism,” and we do not plan on harming “Father” Guido Sarducci, or any of the other myriad ways God and his Church are exploited to get a laugh. Unlike any other group, Catholics have the ability to laugh at themselves. It is a sign of security. It might even be a sobering reminder that oftentimes, we are, in fact, laughable.

Sometimes there is such dissonance between what one says and what one actually is or does, that laughter is our most fitting response. It’s sad, but there are some lives that have become laughable. This is why even the Psalmist can depict the Lord laughing at hardened sinners and ridiculing those who think they can do whatever they want:

Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one: “Let us break their shackles and cast off their chains from us!”
The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them. (Ps 2:2-4)

Such laughter is the wise person’s ability to see that God always wins and that, in the meantime, there are some truly hilarious attempts to take God’s place.

When asked how many people worked at the Vatican, good Pope John XXIII quipped, “Oh, about half of them.” Recently, Pope Francis told Christians they could not be effective witnesses of the Gospel if they walked around like “sourpusses.” Do you remember his first Valentine’s Day greeting at the Vatican (February 14, 2014)? He gave a beautiful address on the gift of love and marriage, and then ended by reminding us all that, “We all know the perfect family does not exist. The perfect husband does not exist, and the perfect wife does not exist … and let’s not even talk about perfect mothers-in-law.” The crowd, of course, roared with laughter. Developing a theology of laughter is worth our time and trouble.  It is a true gift from Joy Himself.

A question pondered from time to time by the Church’s more serious thinkers is whether Christ laughed or not. We know he cried, and we know he grew angry, but the Scriptures never dare to depict our Lord guffawing. This is the incongruence with which G.K. Chesterton ends his monumental work, Orthodoxy:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed his tears; he showed them plainly on his open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of his native city. Yet, he concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet, he restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was, in that shattering personality, a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that he hid from all men when he went up a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.

The laughter of God is, perhaps, something too awesome for us mortals to witness, but what a gift it will be in heaven where we can finally be large enough to enjoy it. As our summers begin, pray for the gift of laughter, and hear the Trinity’s own divine delight in the all too human snickers and giggles of your family and friends.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Anne Waldock says:

    Delighted with your article on laughter, thank you! The only thing is that I have always felt that Christ must have at least smiled when He recounted the story of the Unjust Judge and the nagging widow, or when the mother of James and John wanted them to be given the best seats when Christ attained His Glory, or the ridiculous situation cooked up by the Pharisees regarding the woman having to marry all the seven brothers of her deceased husband, and querying whose wife would she be in heaven? Maybe I’m too frivolous, but I love to think of Christ with a wide smile on His face!

  2. We Catholics may laugh at some things, for instance how funny we all look hugging and shaking hands during Mass at the “Kiss of Peace,” but to suggest that The Veil of Veronica with the Image of the persecuted Christ is a “selfie,” does not sit right with me. We have to draw a line somewhere between humor and disrespect. Also, I do not believe that Pope Frances realizes what a horrible time it was in our country when people had slaves. Many people still remember their ancestors talking about it.

    • Joshua P says:

      Sue Whittaker: Just to be clear, despite how the blog post is formatted with a picture of Pope Francis laughing just above the joke about slavery, I think that the joke, which is credited as being “one of the oldest jokes,” is actually from the ancient joke book referred to as the Philogelos from the mid-4th century and not a joke that Pope Francis himself told.

  3. The quote of Chesterton in this article, concerning the (possible) sense of humor in God, really invites a careful theological analysis:
    “There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.”

    I think that God does have a sense of humor (several parables of Jesus suggest this to me), but the fact that we never read in Scripture “Jesus laughed” – whereas we do read “Jesus wept” – suggests to me that the Lord is very careful with humor, as Chesterton noted, “when he walked upon our earth.” The Lord has, it seems to me, a keen – indeed a perfect, of course – sense of appropriateness. He is (perfectly) prudent in His Self-revelation. We do read of “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (Ecc 3:4). The Lord knows well what is “fitting” and what is not; He knows well what is appropriate for a given “time”, for the right “hour”, and what is not.

    Our failure to know this appropriateness can result in deeply disturbing mis-uses of humor, and even abuses of humor for inappropriate reasons. We can fail to recognize “the hour” when humor is not fitting, we can fail to know when not laughter but tears are due – are appropriate – are owed. We can be, in other words, insensitive to the meaning of the moment – we can miss the full truth and potency of the moment. When this happens, laughter is sterile and hollow – it is far, far from the joy appropriate to truth. There is “a time to laugh” – but when it is not that time, it is simply not that time. With the Cross on one’s back, it may be a time for joy, deep joy, but laughter? For example, I agree with Sue Whittaker, “to suggest that The Veil of Veronica with the Image of the persecuted Christ is a ‘selfie,’ does not sit right with me,” nor with me.

    But again – humor is a wonderful thing! A gift! I believe it is part of the divine image. I hope some day to understand it better than I do now.

  4. I resemble Pope Francis’ mother in law joke & we don’t need to be puritanical about humor, for heaven’s sake. That’s the point: Rather than being afraid to laugh, the closer we get to heaven the more we realize how much more there is to laugh about than we thought. Just ask St. Thomas More or St. Lawrence :-)

  5. “A saint can be defined as one who has a Divine Sense of Humor, for a saint never takes this world seriously as the lasting city. To him the world is like a scaffolding up through which souls climb to the Kingdom of Heaven, and when the last soul shall have climbed up through it, then it shall be torn down and burned with a fervent fire, not because it is base, but simply because it has done its work – it has brought souls back again to God.

    A saint is one who looks out upon this world as a nursery to the Father’s heavenly mansion and a stepping-stone to that Kingdom of Heaven. A saint is one to whom everything in the world is a sacrament. … A saint is one who never complains about the particular duty of his state in life, for he knows full well that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” … A saint is one who has learned to spiritualize and sacramentalize and ennoble everything in the world, and make of it a prayer.

    Everything He said, everything He did could be summed up in these words: Nothing in this world is to be taken seriously, nothing – except the salvation of a soul. … They who pass through this life with that sense of humor, which is faith, will one day be rewarded by the one thing that will make heaven Heaven – His Smile!”

    ~ Venerable Fulton J, Sheen; The Divine Sense of Humor, 1932.
    sheen smile

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