The laughter echoing through the ages is a tangible witness to the good news of Easter- that Jesus Christ is alive among us; that death does not have the last laugh; that darkness does not conquer light. All the forces that conspired to kill Jesus, the fury, the lovelessness, the betrayal - God makes of them all a laughing stock. God laughs...
The most obvious element of this laughter is joy. But there is more to it. The reason that monk burst into peaks of laughter was his sudden understanding. The laughter of this Easter Day is the laughter that bubbles up and over when the totally unexpected, the completely unanticipated, the utter surprise of a thing strikes us. For when something unexpected happens, laughter may well be our first reaction- but it may not be. Our first reaction may be fear. And we see that in our gospel today, ‘and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’. (There is an extraordinary joke in that - they said nothing, but two thousand years later we are still talking about the nothing that they said!)
That aside, on the first Easter Day the disciples were far from joy and laughter. The men had given up - they were away in a corner somewhere, licking their wounds and asking themselves how they had ever believed Jesus was the Messiah. And the women were not much better. They had brought spices to anoint the dead. As they trudged up the path in their mourning clothes their one concern was ‘who will roll away the stone for us?’. They were not laughing. They were seeking the dead among the dead. The world was back in its usual groove - the powerful had won and the powerless were left to grieve the waste of life and love. They were just not ready for the truth that confronted them and we can imagine them stumbling out of that graveyard in fear and confusion, spilling spices and oils as they left in headlong flight. It will take some time before the joke begins to dawn on them. But then the truth surges upwards- death is not the end; God has the last laugh after all. Can you see the radiant smile that breaks across the faces of those terrified disciples - and can you hear their joyous laughter?
As Dr. John McCoy puts it ‘when our mental equipment proves inadequate to a situation, when the irony is so deep, when the apparent contradiction to all we have known and believed is too blatant; then laughter takes over. It is our way of testifying to something that breaks through all the tried and tested processes of history. When that tomb burst asunder, the smithereens flying through the world were the peals of Easter laughter. And the church throughout the ages passes on its merriment from generation to generation, like a baton, daring to tell the world that the very hinge of history turns right here. And now this old world, with its iron laws and fixed immutable patterns ( of life and death) is no longer the world at all. It is a world wild with possibility, where the laughter of God booms out, and the Son of God steps forth from a tomb…alive!’
The monk Thomas Merton wrote, ‘we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through all the time. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves we see it sometimes. Forgetting ourselves is a very difficult thing to do, for we tend to be very self-obsessed. But when we laugh - when we truly laugh, not in bitterness or in spite at another’s misfortune, when we laugh a true laugh of joy - we forget ourselves and touch God in Christ, resurrected and among us.
We all know that laughter is good for us. The Greek philosopher Aristotle reckoned that we take our first laugh about the fortieth day of our life on earth and only then become fully human - and some indigenous peoples hold a special ceremony to celebrate a baby’s first laugh. Laughter stimulates the immune system, releases endorphins and makes us more alert. Laughter, like resurrection, is redemptive, so we should take a dose of both daily like vitamins!
Now of course the trouble is that humour and laughter are the enemies of authority, which is why ‘Easter laughter’ was banned by the Pope in the late seventeenth century and is only now being revived in some places, like Milton! We Christians can be way too serious. St. Augustine and later John Chrysostom condemned laughter, declaring that Christ never laughed and that ‘weeping alone unites with God, while laughter leads a person away from God.’ - which is why sometimes the church gets stuck at Good Friday. It is true that while we have the Bible verse, ‘Jesus wept’, we have no explicit record of his laughing. Yet he was such a lover of parties, of eating with friends and such a teller of vivid jokes- think about the one about the person complaining that someone has a speck in their eye, while failing to notice the plank sticking out of their own! It is inconceivable that Jesus did not laugh.
And God laughs too. God laughs at the ultimate overthrow of all that is oppressive and destructive in our world- and we call that laughter, resurrection. And like all laugher, it is contagious. The disciples are seized by it, body and soul. Gradually they are totally transformed and they take their laughter and the story of Jesus, crucified but raised, to the far ends of the earth. Some of those who hear it, laugh it to scorn. But others hear it and understand, and begin first to smile, and then to laugh, and this laughter is our laughter - the joy of Easter people, whose song is Alléluia!
The laughing Christ is risen. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Penny Jones, for Easter Day, 1 April 2018