The “paschal laugh.” I had never heard of it until our priest began his homily for Easter Sunday with a joke.
During the medieval period, priests and monks would tell their congregations jokes or stories, designed to elicit laughter, and offer a moral at the end.
This laughter makes sense, given the period’s tradition of play cycles across the towns of Europe. In England, particularly, town guilds and churches united to stage dramatic presentations of the events leading to Christian salvation (the temptation, suffering, crucifixion and resurrection). The Biblical plays staged at Easter were both comic and serious, aiming to convey the Paschal joy to their audiences by eliciting their audience’s delight in the scenes of the visitation of the tomb and resurrection, while providing coarse laughter during the depictions of Jesus’s descent into hell to overcome Satan.
Essentially, Easter rejoicing in these plays indicates that God has the last laugh: having been mocked and derided upon the cross, Jesus laughs at death. We laugh, therefore, in the spirit of both liberation and repentance.
Laughter, it seems, is the best medicine. There is a redemptive power in humor, but also a sense of righteousness. In the New Testament, laughter is reflected in the lives of God’s faithful who withstand the temptations of evildoers. In the Beatitudes, Jesus says “Blest are you who are weeping; you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21), and “Woe to you who laugh now; you shall weep in your grief” (Luke 6:25). If we remain righteous, we are promised laughter, gladness and joy in the kingdom of heaven; those who use laughter as a form of ridicule, however, will know great grief.
We are Easter people. For the next 50 days, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and our salvation. We are reminded that because Christ conquered death, we have been redeemed and offered eternal salvation. But we are also reminded – given the darkness of Easter Triduum – that the road to this salvation is never easy. To guide us on our way, Jesus sent forth the Holy Spirit. We are never alone.
Our celebration at Easter and throughout the Easter season is a celebration of God’s triumph over evil. The power of evil has been broken – what better cause to celebrate? We, as Catholics, have the most reason to laugh and live out the Easter joy that Christ instilled in us. We recognize the presence of evil in the world, but remain firm in our belief that God conquers all.
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.