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Joy cometh in the morning

01 April 2016

To mark April fools’ Day, Mark Oakley celebrates the link between faith and laughter

PA

The laugh at the rainbow’s end: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2009

The laugh at the rainbow’s end: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2009

THE rock star Mick Jagger and the jazz singer George Melly were reportedly once chatting at a party when Jagger noticed that Melly was staring curiously at his face.

“I know what you’re thinking, George,” Jagger said, “but these aren’t wrinkles. They’re laughter lines.”

Melly put down his drink. “Mick,” he said, “nothing’s that funny.”

I suspect that people tend to look at the Church and see more wrinkles than laughter lines. It’s not helped by grumpy clergy, like the priest in London who told me that his motto in life is “Start each day with a smile — get it over with.”

Nor it is helped by the sense some churches give that, in order to be spiritually serious, you have to be serious. Let’s face it: you don’t see many pictures of Jesus laughing — even though we know that, storyteller that he was, he and his listeners would presumably have laughed a lot.

On the other hand, some preachers try to be funny in order to convince you that they are human and Just Like You Really. This unholier-than-thou routine can end up being as bottom-clenchingly embarrassing as the uncle on the dance floor. It seems our faith can have an uneasy relationship with fun, which is not helped when we confuse a limp-lettuce humour for Christian joy.

 

WE KNOW that medieval Christians were much more playful in their celebration of Paschal joy. Imagination for them was not a vestigial organ, but was to be inspirited with that exhilaration you get when you run as fast as you can to tell your family that someone you thought was dead isn’t. He’s OK. He’s still with us.

The resurrection of Christ was for them, in the words of the theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, “an expression of God’s laughter over death”; so laughter was naturally the only way to join in this divine joke played on the devil.

Strangely, although it’s said that German humour is no laughing matter, many of the most riotous practices happened around Bavaria. From pre-Reformation preachers who told naughty stories to get the congregation giggling on Easter Day (this didn’t always go down well with local bishops) to Pentecost’s wooden doves that came down on their congregations through holes in the church roof, followed by buckets of water to remind worshippers that the Spirit is not wooden but drenches you, there was a theological confidence there that enabled our forebears to play; to enjoy the truths that were non-negotiable to their faith and shared life.

In Britain, too, where some believed that the sun literally danced for joy on Easter Day, you can see how communities celebrated Easter merriment in their local customs, from Pace-Egging to Holly Bussing, Coal-Carrying to Bottle-Kicking.

 

THE medieval Mystery plays were often bawdy, making many of the biblical stories and characters beguilingly comic, with a touch of Frankie Howerd about them. Anyone who saw Tony Harrison’s adaptation The Mysteries at the National Theatre will remember how joyful the history of salvation is when you allow biblical ‘allusions’ to reclaim the original root of that word — playfulness.

As late as the sixteenth century in southern Poland, we find a play on the resurrection, written by a Pauline monk, that is full of humour, with guards who wake up by an empty tomb, louche devils in hell who try to keep Jesus out so he can’t harrow it, and then Jesus unable to find a suitable Easter envoy because his followers are all so hopelessly unreliable.

And who can forget the cheeky buttocks mentioned at the beginning of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation? In a little English country church at Preston Bissett, supporting the arch at the entrance to the chancel is a carving of a man crouched on all fours, bearing the weight of the building, with his bum facing the high altar and in full view of every priest celebrating the holy mysteries.

It forms part of an elaborate depiction of Christ’s conquest over death. If it’s about resurrection, it was thought, why not chuckle and enjoy the flesh that has been redeemed?

Similar provocative carvings can be found on church furniture and, higher up, among lewd and alarming gargoyles far and wide. What’s going on? Professor MacCulloch is clear: “This was a religion where shouts of laughter as well as roars of rage were common in church, where the clergy waged a constant if perhaps half-hearted battle against fun. . . ”

 

THE Persian poet Hafiz lived at about the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer, and spent most of his life in the cultured garden city of Shiraz. Goethe introduced Hafiz’s poems to the West, and his work became popular with such diverse figures as Queen Victoria and Nietzsche. Even Sherlock Holmes quotes him from time to time.

Hafiz was a Sufi master, and his poems express the human experience of divine love. Love is the sole spiritual imperative, the ultimate intoxicant, the only law of the authentic soul. In one poem he writes:

 

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

 

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

 

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

 

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

 

Whereas, my dear,

I am afraid you still think

 

You have a thousand serious moves.

 

The writer Frank Muir used to say that the definition of a saint was a “dead sinner: dug up and edited”. For Hafiz, however, it is someone who knows that the spiritual life is “a sublime chess game with God”, in which God has always just made a “fantastic move”. Seeing the pointlessness of all our strategic manoeuvres, and that his one move has defeated any thoughts we might have about defence, we simply burst into a laughter of delight and shout out “I surrender!”

It is a similar understanding of Christ’s resurrection — that ultimately we give way to God’s fidelity towards us rather than gravely obsess about our faithfulness towards him — which means that, if a Christian smiles, you should not have to suspect that it must just be wind.

This love of heaven for earth means we can laugh and play on Easter Day without a scrap of Puritan guilt — after all, we are never at our best when on our best behaviour. No matter how serious a player we think we are, the game is always God’s. Alleluia for that!

Hafiz tells us that we need to pull out the chair beneath our mind and watch ourselves fall upon God. Nothing, he says, could be more fun.

 

THERE will be those who say that we live in a serious world, and that Christians should not stand around chuckling in their castles in the air when lives are oppressed by so much evil and injustice. As someone who tries to be actively committed to human rights, I understand that view.

But Martin Luther King never once said “I have a nightmare.” He said he had a vision, and that dream fuelled his hope and enabled it to spread.

Our Christian faith, as he and so many other courageous leaders for change have known, means that we can laugh, and, at the same time and in the energy of that laughter, take up a fight against what stops others from enjoying laughter in life.

Where would Archbishop Tutu’s anti-apartheid work have got without his infectious giggle and impish sense of fun? Like a court jester, with joke and truth he subverted the world’s love of division into a rainbow’s smile. Knowing that it is better to end wars than win them, he then worked hard, through a reconciliation process, for a day when old enemies might be able to sit around and do, together, something that acknowledged their fallibilities and yet created possibilities — listen; lament; laugh.

 

I REMEMBER a man in a hospice bed who, surrendering again to his Creator’s fidelity, was able to smile in the face of death. “No more new suits for me, Mark,” he said. “Nah, no point. In fact, I’ve even stopped buying green bananas.”

I cried on my way home. He laughed on his.

Peter L. Berger once wrote that “the experience of the comic is, finally, a promise of redemption. Religious faith is the intuition (some lucky people would say the conviction) that the promise will be kept.”

Hafiz put it another way:

 

What is this precious love and laughter

Budding in our hearts?

It is the glorious sound

Of a soul waking up!

 

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. His book The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry will be published this summer by Canterbury Press.

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