by Harvey Cox
Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East.
This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis April 6, 1987. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil.
In a passage in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, one monk furiously upbraids another one for presuming to think that Christ ever laughed. We may dismiss his rigidness as excessive, but the question remains: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religion?
In the church I attended as a boy, a snicker during the sermon was ample proof that you must have been thinking of something else. Laughter and faith seem incommensurate. But are they really? It has not always been so. In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri reports that after he had made the tortuous ascent from hell to purgatory, and had then drawn close to the celestial sphere, he suddenly heard a sound he had never heard before. Stopping and listening, he then writes, "me sembiana un riso del universo." It sounded "like the laughter of the universe."
True, on Easter Sunday 1987 there appears to be very little to smile about in God’s universe. Wars still tear at the flesh in Central America, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Wide-eyed Iranian boys, roped together in platoons lest they lose heart, are urged forward into Iraqi mine fields. Hunger chokes children’s lives every day while our gifts of imagination and inventiveness go into fashioning ever deadlier missiles and countermissiles. American agents kill and burn in Nicaragua while being paid by funds gathered from arms sales by shadowy figures who act in our names. The concept of "the consent of the governed" sometimes seems almost as inoperative as it was when a Caesar imposed his will by fiat. All in all, there seems to be little room for laughter.
Yet the Bible teaches us that in the face of proud claims of rulers and the cruelty of despots, "The Holy One who sitteth in the heavens shall laugh" (Psalm 2:4). God laughs at oppression and meanness? At first the idea sounds irreverent, surprising. With suffering and evil so rampant, how can a loving God laugh?
The Easter story gives us a clue to this baffling riddle. A small and precarious clue, perhaps, but a clue nonetheless. God laughs, it seems, because God knows how it all turns out in the end. Further, the laughter of God, as the passion accounts tell us, does not come from afar. It does not emanate from One who can safely chortle, from a safe distance, at another’s pain. It comes from One who has also felt the hunger pangs, the hurt of betrayal by friends and the torturer’s touch.
Perhaps Easter Sunday 1987 provides us with just the right occasion to reclaim the holy laughter that fell on Dante’s astonished ears as his steps drew near God’s dwelling place. On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?
I hope so. On Easter, after all, we retell an unlikely tale that — were it not so profoundly true — would have to be passed off as a lame joke. Without even so much as a stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one (since most of us already have), we recount the tale of a man who sided with the disinherited and the heartbroken, who became the hope of those who had lost all hope, who was tortured to death and sealed in a tomb. So far there is nothing terribly noteworthy because so many others have gone through so much of the same.
But the punchline of this tall story is that this same man so his friends insisted — was once more alive. The Romans and their local supporters had thought they had rid themselves of the rabble-rousing rabbi for good. Against the clear counsel of the wisest Pharisees, a clique of the Jerusalem elite, fearful that Jesus might provoke a bloody Roman reprisal, conspired with the imperial occupation authorities to push through a drumhead trial. Unable to concoct a credible religious excuse to condemn Jesus — who remained a pious Jew — they advanced a political charge. Jesus claimed, they said, to be a king, and "we have no king but Caesar." So, they warned Pilate, "If you release him, you are no friend of Caesar’s."
Silence and After
This was too much for Pilate. Like all underlings clinging to the middle rungs of power before and since, he feared nothing more than a negative report to headquarters. So he confronted Jesus with the accusation. Having such a charge brought against him, Jesus held his silence. Yes, he had spoken of a new reign that was already arriving in the midst of Pilate’s world. But it was a kingdom neither Pilate nor Caesar had the spiritual capacity to discern. Indeed how could the rich and powerful understand that he was talking about a kingdom that bore no resemblance to the one Rome had imposed on his people with its fearful phalanxes of legions?
If his accusers had not already grasped the Message — that the reign he was talking about was one in which peace would hold sway and the hungry would be fed — how could they understand it now? But Jesus’ tormentors knew only the kind of power that paid them. So it was ironic that when they designed a nasty sight-gag by handing him a phony scepter and placing a crown of thorns on his head, they inadvertently hit closer to the truth than they knew: Jesus’ kingdom is one that comes only when people risk the pain that results from speaking inconvenient truth to spurious power. So Jesus was put to death.
For a while there was no laughter. The joking was over. The raucous howls of the executioners stopped only when they finally grew weary. The obscene hoots of the passersby ended at last when the figure on the cross would not rail back. The sneers of Pilate and the jeers of Herod also subsided when, their official duties finished, they returned to their palaces having rid themselves once and for all — so they thought — of this troublemaker.
Now there was no laughter. Only silence. But then came Easter morning. And if we listen carefully to the silence of that dawn we may also detect, dimly and at a distance, what Dante heard when he came within earshot of the Paradiso. We hear a gentle murmur, ethereal yet earthly, angelic yet terribly human. It begins as a whisper that as we listen begins to sound like laughter. But if we fine-tune our hearing we notice it bears no resemblance at all to the screeches and howls we heard during the trial at the cross. It sounds more like the laughter of eight-year-olds doing cartwheels or of old friends savoring a birthday, or of a gray-haired couple chuckling at the antics of a grandchild. Yet it is more, much more.
Holy laughter is a gift of grace. It is the human spirit’s last defense against banality and despair. Sometimes I think that comedians — those of the gentle type — can he God’s emissaries in a mean-spirited time like ours. Woody Allen depicts neurotic people who, despite everything, somehow succeed in being compassionate. Garrison Keillor reports regularly from a forgotten little town on the pedestrian virtues and unspectacular goodness of ordinary people. Rightly rendered, the comic spirit transcends tragedy. It steps outside the probability tables and enables us to catch a fleeting glimpse of what might be, even of what — ultimately — already is.
Some people, no matter how hard you try to explain it, simply don’t get a joke. The Easter Story is like that. There is no point whatever is trying to explain it or make it more plausible. Easter is that moment when the laughter of the universe breaks through. It fades, of course, like a distant radio signal on a stormy night. A lot of noise and static crowds it out. But once we have heard it we know from then on that it is there. It is God’s last laugh.