God’s Laughter

One of the themes that sometimes pops up in Catholic reflections during Easter is the idea of the Resurrection as a sort of divine practical joke. There are grounds for it from both a human and from a supernatural perspective.

As Garrison Keillor points out, the disciples on the Emmaus Road were the happy victims of one of the greatest practical jokes of all time. Jesus walks along with them, playing dumb while they patiently explain to him what he has apparently missed by living under a rock somewhere. When he breaks the bread and their eyes are opened, it’s pretty hard to not see a smile and a wink on the face of Jesus as he disappears (followed, of course, by a good self-administered forehead smack by the Emmaus disciples). Oy!

Supernaturally, as well, Easter commemorates the ultimate practical joke—and on the ultimate richly deserving jerk. If it’s funny to watch the pompous mayor slip on a banana peel after delivering himself of some windbag know-nothing speech, if it’s funny to watch Adenoid Hynkel make an idiot of himself, if it’s funny to see Wile E. Coyote concoct incredibly elaborate schemes only to fulfill his biblical “life verse” (“He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling.” – Proverbs 26:27), then how much funnier is it when the Devil plays Master of the Universe, concocts a huge sure-fire scheme for killing off the last of these runty David types he has always loathed—and the whole thing backfires so cosmically that his empire of death is destroyed just as surely as Goliath and his former slaves and victims go off singing to become kings and queens who share in the life of God himself forever? I don’t care who you are, that’s funny. Satan makes Homer Simpson look like Einstein.

The medieval mind was alive to this, which is why the devil is routinely depicted with an ass’ ears in medieval art. It’s the iconographic equivalent of Bugs Bunny’s immortal words, “What a maroon!” Christianity preserved from Judaism the happy sense of irreverence for powers and principalities that need taken down a peg. That is, after all, what we see in the story of the Exodus: the little guy looks at Pharaoh as he trumpets, “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” and says loud and clear, “Stick it in your ear! God is the real King of Kings.” It’s what the psalmist is talking about when he prophesies of Christ:

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)

So laughter—even derisive laughter—is part of the Easter package.

But, of course, derisive laughter is the lowest sort of laughter. It’s appropriate to indulge in it when we are dealing with the devil since, as St. Thomas More said, “The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.” But it’s also a bit dangerous for us humans because it’s a kind of laughter that can deteriorate into haughtiness toward men and, worse still, the vinegary bitterness of mere flippancy if we are not careful. And flippancy is, as Uncle Screwtape observes, the finest armor plating Hell has ever devised against the approach of grace.

That’s, in part, what lies behind the counsel of our Lord when he says, “that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20). In others words, don’t get addicted to schadenfreude and rob yourself of Joy.

For, of course, the deepest laughter of Easter is the laughter of Joy. It’s the laughter of the returning exiles who sang:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad. (Psalm 126:1-3)

It’s the laughter in the Field of Cormallen:

“How do I feel?’ Samwise cried. ‘Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” — he waved his arms in the air — “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”

All the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

That is the laughter of Heaven. For in Christ the tears and even the blood of his Passion have become the very wine of blessedness. Far greater than the mere defeat of the devil is the joyful triumph of life and love everlasting in Christ. Long after the devil is utterly forgotten, Christ and the exiles he has brought home to the heavenly Zion will still be filling their mouths with laughter, for we will be immersed in the ecstasy of the Blessed Trinity made possible for us by Easter.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Rejoice!


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